In many ways, the outward tone of US foreign policy toward Africa transcends partisanship. While policies concerning the Middle East and Asia are often highly politicised, developing countries in Africa and many in Latin America tend to receive similar public treatment from both Republicans and Democrats. This general trend is reflected in many of the Africa policy proposals by the McCain and Obama campaigns, each eager to win the moral vote by supporting HIV/AIDS treatment programs and ending the genocide in Darfur.

But behind the public remarks about mutual partnership and common ideals lies a foreign policy that sustains the Bush approach to global interaction; defense heavy, diplomacy light. It goes beyond the bipartisan provision of basic services and promotion of peace in Africa and toward a more strategic narcissism about the role of the US in Africa in the coming years. The new US military command for Africa, AFRICOM, became an independent, fully-functioning body on 1 October, one month before the 2008 presidential election. If presidential candidates Barack Obama and John McCain truly wish to campaign as ‘agents of change’ or ‘mavericks’, they must insist on an alternate strategy for approaching the African continent.

AFRICOM, Donald Rumsfeld’s final plan as Secretary of Defense, will be established just before President Bush leaves and will give unprecedented access to the military on the continent. It is one of the final battles in the Pentagon’s coup over the State Department, allowing the US to continue its ideological war against terrorism and to use soldiers to secure oil supplies. In many ways, it is the Bush agenda in the Middle East relocated onto African soil.

Despite this, top Africa policy advisors from both campaigns said at a forum in Washington last week that they wish to help AFRICOM realise its full potential. Their rationale is that it will help control violence on a continent that is in desperate need of peace and stability. Never mind that AFRICOM’s mandate involves direct military-to-military training and equipping, rather than support for an African Union (AU) that conducts multilateral peacekeeping missions. Never mind that AFRICOM’s stated goals involve protecting American interests, rather than ensuring that the African people’s primary needs and desires are met. Never mind that many African governments and African civil society strongly oppose AFRICOM. No, the next administration will ignore all of that in the blind belief that the US can unilaterally bring peace and prosperity to the African continent.

The fact that both campaigns have made an effort to distance themselves from Bush’s mistakes in the Middle East and yet also endorse a policy that is so clearly a repetition of the current administration’s ideology is deeply troubling. Ultimately, it legitimises Bush’s strategic interests in Africa rather than pursuing a new, just, and diplomatic foreign policy. It shows that both Obama and McCain believe that the current US approach to Africa is the right one and that unless it affects popular opinion, perhaps Bush’s AFRICOM isn’t so bad.

After all, they praise nearly every other Bush initiative in Africa, good and bad – from the Millennium Challenge Account (MCA) to the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) – as well as previous administration’s initiatives such as the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA). The attitude is really one of ‘any attention to Africa is good attention’, rather than ‘yes, we are providing aid to Africa but perhaps standing up a military command undermines our ability to be effective partners.’ Each of the campaigns is sacrificing important dialogue on AFRICOM for the sake of remaining neutral, bipartisan, and uncontroversial. Any political agenda that either the Republicans or Democrats may have in Africa remains quiet, and until the American people voice their concerns, it will likely remain so.

Ultimately, what Barack Obama or John McCain decide to do with AFRICOM within the first year of their presidency will reveal a great deal about the extent to which these candidates are willing to divorce themselves from Bush’s legacy. Citizens should pressure them on this issue; AFRICOM is not simply another feel-good, do-good Africa policy. Its roots are in the neoconservative agenda that has expanded the US military around the world and threatens diplomacy and development. Both campaigns have expressed a desire to reinstate diplomacy in US foreign policy, but their tacit approval of AFRICOM counteracts that goal. Obama and McCain cannot float a benevolent Africa policy with a weight like AFRICOM pulling it down.

The establishment of AFRICOM reveals a certain self-interested neglect for a foreign policy that works for all people. Yes, the next president must be able to protect US citizens, but he must not compromise the rights of others who will inevitably fall victim to a continuation of the last eight years of US interaction with the world. At the very core, it is Bush’s Middle East all over again, and for two candidates who are running on ‘change,’ a different approach is strongly advised.

* Beth Tuckey is the associate director of Program Development and Policy at Africa Faith and Justice Network (AFJN) in Washington, DC.

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Beth Tuckey (Published by Pambazuka News – Fahamu)