WASHINGTON — President Obama promised greater cooperation on economic and development issues with African leaders at the White House today, but only touched on the conflicts currently roiling the continent — signaling that the administration's policy towards Africa will stay relatively unchanged in his second term.
Although Obama has taken a greater interest, at least rhetorically, in Africa than some previous presidents, the administration has not been as engaged in the continent as it has in the Middle East and Asia, a dynamic that isn't likely to change.
The leaders of Malawi, Sierra Leone, Senegal and Cape Verde all met Obama at the White House this afternoon after they visited the Pentagon. A similar visit happened in 2011 when the presidents of Benin, Niger, Côte d'Ivoire, and Guinea came to Washington. All are states being highlighted by the administration as African success stories in an era of historically rapid growth in some areas of Africa, and terrible bloodshed and disorder in others.
"The reason that I'm meeting with these four is they exemplify the progress that we're seeing in Africa," Obama said, according to remarks released by the White House. "What our discussion has focused on is, number one, how do we continue to build on strong democracies; how do we continue to build on transparency and accountability."
"We also talked about the economic situation. And all of us recognize that, although Africa has actually been growing faster than almost every other region of the world, it started from a low baseline and it still has a lot of work to do," Obama said. "And so we discussed how the United States can continue to partner effectively with each of these countries."
Obama briefly mentioned some of the unrest that's making most headlines about Africa these days.
"Obviously, economic development, prosperity doesn't happen if you have constant conflict," he said. "And nobody knows that more than these individuals."
"Now many of the threats are transnational," Obama said. "You've seen terrorism infiltrate into the region. We've seen drug cartels that are using West Africa in particular as a transit point. All of this undermines some of the progress that's been made, and so the United States will continue to cooperate with each of these countries to try to find smart solutions so that they can build additional capacity and make sure that these cancers don't grow in their region. And the United States intends to be a strong partner for that."
The Central African Republic is currently embroiled in a military coup d'état that has thrown the country's capital into chaos. Meanwhile, French troops are staying in northern Mali through the end of 2013 after driving out Islamist forces, and the United Nations has authorized an "intervention brigade" to enter war-torn Congo.
John Campbell, former ambassador to Nigeria, said he didn't expect to see deeper involvement in Africa's conflict issues from the administration.
"I don't see a dramatic change coming up," Campbell said. "There's certainly been more involvement; for example there are a small number of US troops involved in the effort to capture [Joseph] Kony and shut down the Lord's Resistance Army."
"I think the policy's right," Campbell said. "I think the focus has to be on governance. Governance and the rule of law is essentially the prerequisite in stabilizing these countries."
"The opportunity to meet with President Obama should also be used to articulate the broader challenges that Africa faces and the need for deeper U.S. engagement with the region," Brookings Institute expert Mwangi S. Kimenyi wrote last week. Kimenyi called for the president to broaden his approach to Africa: "The president's engagement with Africa should also be more inclusive and as much as possible engage directly with the broader African leadership probably through the African Union organs."
The African leaders' visit to the Pentagon put the continent on defense officials' minds as well as the White House, Foreign Policy wrote on Thursday. The leadership of AFRICOM has just changed hands, and "the rest of the Defense Department" is "just realizing how interesting" Africa is. But the talk in the military is of keeping the footprint in Africa light, in a reflection of the White House's line.
Obama finished the meeting with kind words for Nelson Mandela, who is ill.
"When you think of a single individual that embodies the kind of leadership qualities that I think we all aspire to, the first name that comes up is Nelson Mandela, and so we wish him all the very best," Obama said.