President Barack Obama's selection of career diplomat Johnnie Carson as assistant secretary of state for Africa seems an obvious, if somewhat unexciting, choice. Reaching once again into the Clinton-era dugout, Obama perhaps got the idea from current U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice, who was Carson's boss during the Clinton years. Unfortunately this particular era of U.S.-African relations was a disaster for millions in places like Rwanda, Somalia and Liberia.
Ironically, the Africans liked President Bush because they thought he was generous. President Obama will have to demonstrate the same level of generosity, while at the same time entering diplomatically into some of the most intractable conflicts on the planet. He will also have to lead without the blinding self-interest that marred the Clinton-era policies.
Nevertheless, Carson has served successfully as ambassador in Zimbabwe, Uganda and Kenya, and can be assumed to be one of the more experienced and well-connected Africanists in the State Department. He will need to be. He will be facing a mind-boggling series of challenges ranging from Somali pirates to the effects of the global economic downturn on millions of ordinary Africans.
As he jets off to South Africa for the inauguration of that country's newly elected president, Jacob Zuma, Carson must be contemplating the millions of Africans who will be thrown back into dire poverty during the next year because of collapsing commodity prices; the conflicts in Zimbabwe, Kenya, the Sudan and Somalia, in which no real progress towards a resolution has been made; African giants Nigeria and Congo, which show many signs of impending turmoil and even collapse; and even continental stalwart South Africa, which may destabilize if President Zuma fails to placate the masses of South Africans who have yet to experience any benefits from the post-apartheid boom.
As is the case anywhere, the U.S. needs a strategy for Africa that balances our strategic interests (e.g., oil and counterterrorism) with our humanitarian goals (poverty reduction and democracy promotion). These need not be contradictory, but they may require some tough, and perhaps unpleasant, trade-offs.
In the short term, Carson's biggest challenge may be to avoid being seen in any photographs with Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe, who is also attending the ceremony. Sudan's President Omar al-Bashir was on the guest list, but had to cancel at the last minute. Something about an ICC indictment and arrest warrant that may have spoiled the party.
(First published May 8, 2009 in World Politics Review)