The American financial crisis is upmost in the minds of both U.S. presidential candidates and voters. It seemed unlikely, therefore, that Africa would be more than a minor footnote, and certainly provide no sound bite, as the campaign enters its final month.
Yet, in the second presidential debate, both Sens. Barack Obama and John McCain used several bloody conflicts from the oft-forgotten continent to illustrate the reach and purpose of their foreign policy doctrines.
In suitably vague terms, Mr. Obama proclaimed that standing "idly by" in Rwanda "diminishes us." He announced that the genocide in Darfur can only be curtailed by an American-led effort to bolster the United Nations-African Union peacekeeping force there. Mr. McCain offered similar boilerplate assurances on preventing genocide, but pointed to the "limits of our capability." He cited the "humiliating" U.S. intervention in Somalia as a cautionary case of reach exceeding grasp. Mr. McCain went much further in the December 2007 issue of Foreign Affairs by naming Africa as the most compelling case for humanitarian intervention and promised to use "all elements" of U.S. power to halt the outrages in Darfur.
Do Africa's two minutes of presidential primetime raise the prospect of next president's heightened engagement with the continent?
After all, President George W. Bush's policies and programs in Africa have provided him with rare approval from his domestic opponents. His $15 billion AIDS-fighting PEPFAR initiative has provided 1.7 million Africans with anti-retroviral drugs. Sen. Joe Biden proclaimed it as one of Mr. Bush's "finest hours."
Similarly praised were Mr. Bush's extension of President Clinton's Africa Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) that reduced or eliminated tariffs on most African exports to the United States, and the creation of the Millennium Challenge Account (MCA) that provides aid to African countries that embrace economic and political reforms. Both Mr. Obama and Mr. McCain are enthusiastic supporters of the MCA.
Mr. Obama initially announced he would fund it more generously but has now pulled back that pledge in view of the deteriorating fiscal picture in the United States. Mr. McCain's plan would help Africa in a more durable way by abolishing wasteful agricultural subsidies for U.S. farmers that tamp down African agricultural exports.
While the Bush administration acted decisively and swiftly against Kenyan President Mwai Kibaki's electoral theft last December by dispatching Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to the region and threatening to cut off aid to Kenya, its attempts to encourage democracy in Zimbabwe have been uneven and feeble.
By appointing Thabo Mbeki, the pro-Mugabe president of South Africa, as his "point man" for Zimbabwe, Mr. Bush effectively handed the issue over to an unreliable South African leadership. Moreover, Mr. Bush's focus on "the war against terror" allowed authoritarian allies of the United States, such as the Ethiopian regime of Meles Zenawi, to escape the democracy-deepening requirements of the MCA, thus weakening hopes the delivery of MCA aid could be depoliticized.
No matter who replaces President Bush, Africa will remain an important item on his agenda. Mr. Obama's campaign adviser on Africa, Witney W Schneidman, recently suggested his perspective is informed by the fact that "he is the product of the African Diaspora, the son of a Kenyan father, whose grandmother still lives in Kenya."
This unusual provenance has suggested to some that Mr. Obama will be a "soft touch" when it comes to Africa. In fact, a closer analysis of his record indicates otherwise: During his 2006 visit to Africa, he forthrightly attacked the disastrous AIDS-denialism of South Africa's then-health minister. In Kenya he railed against "the lack of basic rule of law and accountability" in Africa.
Mr. Obama's initiatives in the U.S. Senate, such as his 2005 amendment to the Foreign Operations Appropriations bill that funded the Special Court for Sierra Leone and helped to bring the regional warlord Charles Taylor to justice, suggests Mr. Obama might become impatient with the "big man solidarity" that the African Union invokes repeatedly to shield dictators from accountability - most recently Omar al-Bashir of Sudan.
Mr. McCain has elaborated little in the campaign on his grandiose project of creating "the league of democracies," to act "where the United Nations fails." He clearly envisages such a body to pierce the shield provided to tyrannies by Russian and Chinese U.N. Security Council vetoes. However, there is no appetite in Pretoria or in virtually any other country for such a league.
Africa's worst problems, from AIDS to Zimbabwe, and its best hopes, from deepening of liberal democracy to spreading of economic opportunity, can benefit from the continued engagement and partnership with the United States. Africa's development success, however, will mostly depend on the commitment of African ruling elites to the ideas of political and economic freedom.