Peace and Obama: Reflections of a Concerned Activist

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By Allison Burket

obama_oslo_05_photoThis first decade of the century was one largely defined by America’s response to 9/11 terrorist attacks. By declaring war on an evasive and loosely bound transnational network of extremists, the Bush administration promised increased security for the American people. Yet, this “we’re at war” way of viewing the rest of the world has proved less than constructive for our relationships with friends and allies, fueled the anger of potential opponents and the next generation of extremists, and opened the door for U.S. Africa military command (AFRICOM), and thus the continuation of the all-too-familiar ways militaries in Africa serve to undermine peace and security.

Following President Obama’s initial rejection of the term “war on terror,” we at AFJN hoped that the he might use the occasion of delivering a Nobel  Peace address to more clearly signal to the world a change: that our foreign policy would consider a vision for peace, and the diplomatic means of getting there, as a priority and as preferable to a short-term, militarized approach to security. Unfortunately, the underlying message in Obama’s speech reinforces the reality of his attitudes, those we have continued to observe in his U.S. Africa policy – the more things change, the more they stay the same.

In Norway, on December 10th , Obama encouraged the world to “strive for peace” in the face of what seems to be conflict’s inevitability. He also presented the need for protecting American security and rejected the notion that our values can be placed on hold for the sake of that security. Important to American leadership in the world, he argued, is that we uphold our ideals, “not when it’s easy, but when it is hard.”

Then, America’s response to the Christmas failed suicide attack became a timely indicator of our level of commitment to that promise. Without attempting to consult or even contact the Nigerian government, the Obama administration has placed Nigeria on a security list that mandates extra screening for citizens of Nigeria because of the nationality of the attacker, a gesture to which Nigeria doesn’t take too kindly. Information Minister Dora Akunyili told reporters, “Nigeria expresses its disappointment and concern over the undeserved placement of Nigeria on the countries-of-interest list.” She said she “views this action as having the potential of undermining long-standing and established U.S.-Nigeria bilateral ties and the goodwill the U.S. enjoys in Nigeria.” While no single nation’s response to a policy is a determinant of that policy’s success, Nigeria’s reaction is no exception to the norm, nor is it one to ignore. As Sahel researcher Alex Thurston put it, “As officials in Washington continue to ask how better to safeguard America, they must also consider the implications of worsening relations with Africa’s most populous country.” He continues, “U.S. officials should be aware that African governments are increasingly unreceptive to American behavior seen as bullying and condescending.”

Alienating allies hardly seems a viable security strategy. Nevertheless, the Nigerian case is not the only time knee-jerk security measures have trumped the “painstaking diplomacy” Obama identified in his address as an essential component of a plan for peace. It reflects the Bush-era wartime view of the rest of the world that was also captured in the language in his speech: “[We] cannot stand idle in the face of threats to the American people,” he said. “For make no mistake, evil does exist in the world.” Yet, this revelation in his speech hardly comes as a surprise to those who have been following AFRICOM. Obama’s administration has continued to allow our military to take the lead in U.S. engagements with Africa. It places emphasis on military-to-military relationships over hearing the voices of African civil society. It prioritizes nations’ counter-terrorism capabilities without consideration for the long-term peace and stability and ignores the tendency for African leaders, for the sake of drawing aid from the U.S. , to exaggerate the degree to which local dissidents are plugged into transnational terrorist networks (as we reported in the previous newsletter with regards to Mali)

Again, let’s look at Nigeria, currently the fifth largest source of U.S. oil imports. Instability and attacks by militants have repeatedly interrupted the flow of oil. Yet, the strong presence of militarism throughout Nigeria’s history, and the use of the military to attempt to enforce security, has hindered economic development.  It has only exacerbated regional inequalities within Nigeria and the marginalization of citizens at the root of the insecurity to begin with. Yet, when asked in August 2009 how U.S. would support stability and security in the Niger Delta, Secretary of State Hilary Clinton emphasized the positive “working relationship between our two militaries.” One of the numerous programs through which African countries receive military aid, the Foreign Military Financing (FMF) program, saw a proposed 2010 budget increase of more than 300 percent for Africa, and now that Nigeria is of importance for counterterrorism, several millions of additional security funding is to be made available.

Overall, just as in his Nobel speech he nestled a roadmap for America’s leadership on building peace in the world within a hearty defense of a “we’re at war” view of the world, Obama’s Africa policy remains a military-led engagement with regimes that promise to fight terrorists and guarantee access to oil, couched in the familiar language of “helping Africans help themselves.”  Obama even claimed in his speech, “[O]nly a just peace based on the inherent rights and dignity of every individual can truly be lasting.” Yet such a promise seemed shallow as AFRICOM partners with armies such as the Ugandan People’s Defense Forces (UPDF), Uganda’s national army, notorious for its human rights violations, or considers President Museveni an important ally even as he impedes Uganda’s electoral process.

Perhaps most disheartening is Obama’s unwillingness to look critically at the myth of America’s role on the world stage as primarily an underwriter of global security. “The service and sacrifice of our men and women in uniform has promoted peace and prosperity from Germany to Korea, and enabled democracy to take hold in places like the Balkans,” he said in Norway. Again, our role in Africa exemplifies the fallacy of that myth. From financing the Democratic Republic of the Congo’s notorious plunderer and former President Mobutu, to partnering in Ethiopia’s 2006 invasion of Somalia overthrowing the first stable government Somalia’s people had seen, the U.S. military’s record on the continent has been less than admirable.

In 1967, former Peace Prize recipient Martin Luther King Jr. delivered an address genuinely pushing for peace, instead of defending war, and calling for the revolution of values he felt was necessary to get us there. He said, “A true revolution of values will soon cause us to question the fairness and justice of many of our past and present policies. … A true revolution of values will lay a hand on the world order and say of war, ‘This way of settling difference is not just.’” Africa could stand to benefit much from the U.S. leadership examining our actions in that way. If only Obama had the audacity.

Originally published in the Jan-Feb edition of Around Africa

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