Obama's Adventures in Africa

Four years ago, few would have predicted that one of President Obama's legacies would be increased militarization of U.S. policy toward Africa.


A recent United Nations report notes that U.S. military drone flights over Somalia are now frequent enough to endanger local air traffic. Calling Africa "the new frontier in terms of counterterrorism and counternarcotics," the Drug Enforcement Administration has begun training paramilitary drug warrior teams in Ghana, and plans to expand the program to Nigeria and Kenya.

Meanwhile, the Obama administration is considering intervention in the West African nation of Mali, where al Qaeda-inspired Islamist rebels have seized territory in the North. The insurgents are "a looming threat," a Pentagon official claims, and "all options are being considered."

Four years ago, few would have predicted that one of President Obama's legacies would be increased militarization of U.S. policy toward Africa—but that seems to be the case.

For a while, one pet right-wing theory—concocted by Dinesh D'Souza and embraced by GOP presidential contender Newt Gingrich—was that "the anti-colonial ideology" of the president's Kenyan father drove everything Obama does. Dreams from Obama's absentee father made Barack Jr. "view America's military as an instrument of neocolonial occupation," D'Souza imagined—and so, "incredibly, the U.S. is being ruled according to the dreams of a Luo tribesman of the 1950s."

Newt Gingrich found the notion pretty credible—actually, a "profound insight," he told National Review in Sept. 2010, "the most accurate, predictive model for [Obama's] behavior."

Six months later, the model ran into a little trouble when Obama began raining Tomahawk missiles down on the North African country of Libya. What, one wonders, would a genuine Afrocentric anti-colonialist think of new drone bases in Ethiopia and Djibouti, spy plane flights from a dozen installations throughout Africa or the president's decision to deploy U.S. special forces to Central Africa to help hunt down the bizarre death-cult known as the Lord's Resistance Army? Would Obama Sr. look fondly on U.S. Africa Command's "mission" to "provide a security environment conducive to good governance and development"?

Probably not. Perhaps, instead of crackpot theories about Obama's alleged "daddy issues," we can look to bureaucratic mission creep as the sounder explanation for the president's behavior.

Last summer, in his first public comments after moving from Langley to the Pentagon, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta noted that al Qaeda's defeat was "within reach." When we kill or round up some 10 to 20 remaining senior operatives, Panetta said, we'll "really cripple al Qaeda as a threat to this country."

On the home front, this allegedly "existential threat" hasn't managed to set off a single bomb in the U.S. in 10 years. AQ appears pretty well crippled at this point.

Still, the War on Terror goes on and expands. How great a threat to the U.S. are Al Shabab, al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, Boko Haram, and the other groups we're surveilling or targeting? In June, the Washington Post reported that some State Department officials worried about military mission creep: "They have argued that most terrorist cells in Africa are pursuing local aims, not global ones, and do not present a direct threat to the United States." In our expanded drone war, one former national security official comments: "What's happening is that we're using the technology to target people we never would have bothered to capture."

Promiscuous war-making leads to unintended consequences. For example, U.S. intervention in Libya stoked the civil war in Mali, as Tuaregs serving in Gadhafi's army joined the fight after the dictator's fall.

It's not clear that our expanded military presence in Africa serves any pressing U.S. national security need. But interventions have a way of generating their own justifications. Before long, "blowback" from African adventurism may generate new crises for this or a future administration to solve.