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Africa: The Right’s Stuff

The full-page ads appearing in newspapers across the country are wrenching: children in the last stages of starvation, terrified refugees, and burned...

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The full-page ads appearing in newspapers across the country are wrenching: children in the last stages of starvation, terrified refugees, and burned out villages. They are the images that come to mind when most Americans think about the Sudan. The human rights crisis in Darfur is real—somewhere between 100,00 and 200,000 people have died since 2003—and the ads were placed by religiously affiliated organizations including conservative Christian groups, like the Southern Baptist Convention and the National Association of Evangelicals, as well as liberal organizations like Tikkun and Sojourners. But a seasoned cadre of neoconservatives and right-wingers have latched on to the issue, pushing an agenda that favors military over political solutions.

They include Elliott Abrams and Nina Shea (both of whom played key roles in the Reagan administration’s wars in El Salvador and Nicaragua), leading conservative evangelical Christians, and two of the country’s most right-wing legislators, Sen. Sam Brownback (R-KS) and Rep. Tom Tancredo (R-CO).

Typical of the rhetoric of this group was a commentary from Brownback published in the Orlando Sentinel last month. Brownback wrote that while he supports a diplomatic solution to Darfur, "We must be prepared to take strong action against the Khartoum government if diplomacy continues not to yield positive results." He added: "The parties responsible for the genocide in Darfur must pay a price for their role in the continuing attacks on civilians and their refusal to accept international peace keeping forces" (Orlando Sentinel, February 27, 2007).

Behind the rhetoric of the "war on terrorism," the Bush administration has a long-term strategy for Africa that turns butter into guns. The White House recently established a separate U.S. military command for Africa—AFRICOM—and this past December directly intervened in Somalia’s civil war. Washington is also spreading a network of military clients throughout North Africa and the Sahara and is even considering military action against anti-government insurgents in Nigeria. (See, for example, transcript of Associated Press interview with U.S. Gen. James L. Jones, supreme commander of the NATO, August 31, 2006.)

A key person in this new aggressiveness is longtime neoconservative figure Elliott Abrams. When he was appointed chair of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (CIRF) in 1999, Abrams began leveraging U.S. foreign policy away from a concern for poverty and toward a focus on "religious persecution" in the Sudan, Russia, and China. In 2002, he was appointed senior director of Near East and North African Affairs, just as the Bush administration began basing troops in Djibouti on the strategic Horn of Africa. Some of those forces took part in the recent invasion of Somalia. Abrams also helped launch the Trans-Sahel Counterterrorism Initiative, which has drawn a number of North African countries and areas bordering the Sahara into a web of military alliances.

Abrams is currently the national security adviser for global democracy and strategy and the point person on Israel. His philosophy of diplomacy is perhaps best summed up by a line from a chapter he wrote in Robert Kagan and Bill Kristol‘s Present Dangers: Crisis and Opportunity in American Foreign and Defense Policy (2000): "Our military strength and willingness to use it will remain a key factor in our ability to promote peace."

Negotiation is not Abrams’ forte. William LeoGrande, dean of the American University School of Public Affairs and an expert on Central America, says that Abrams’ track record demonstrates that he won’t "negotiate with adversaries" but instead insists "on total victory, as if foreign policy were a moral crusade in which compromise was an anathema" (Jim Lobe, "Rice Faces Formidable White House Foe," Inter Press Service, February 23, 2007).

Brute force has always been central to the neoconservative worldview. During the 1980s, Abrams helped organize the Contra war against the Sandinista government of Nicaragua and took part in the cover-up of the horrendous El Mozote massacre in El Salvador by a U.S.-trained government battalion.

Abrams’ vice-chair on the CIRF was Nina Shea, a longtime associate of the neoconservative-led Freedom House, an organization known to play fast and loose with facts when it suits U.S. power interests. Shea founded the Puebla Institute in 1986 to fight the growth of liberation theology in Latin America and, according to former Contra leader Edward Chamorro, worked with the groups trying to overthrow Nicaragua’s Sandinista government. Like Abrams, Shea focuses on the issue of religion rather than human rights. According to Newsweek, Shea made "Christian persecution Washington’s hottest cause."

A 2003 Human Rights Watch report entitled, "Sudan, Oil, and Human Rights," charges that when Abrams was chair and Shea vice-chair of CIRF, they advocated assisting the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM), the principle military opponent of the Sudan government. The Bush administration ended up backing the umbrella National Democratic Alliance of Sudan, which was dominated by the SPLM.

Abrams and Shea pushed to get Congress to declare the crisis in Darfur a genocide, a designation that would permit military intervention. But while on the surface some kind of military intervention in Sudan would seem a no-brainer, Darfur is complex: a brutal conflict between nomads and agriculturalists, a proxy war between Sudanese elites in Khartoum, and an arena of regional competition between Sudan, Chad, and Niger. A military "solution" could make things worse, not better.

Two of Congress’s most conservative legislators, Brownback and Tancredo, pressed hard for the Darfur Peace and Accountability Act, which urges military intervention in the Sudan. Brownback is a cosponsor of legislation that would allow local, state, and federal officials to overrule the courts on religious issues; he calls abortion a "holocaust," compares stem cell research to Nazi medical experiments, and says global warming is "a hoax." Tancredo is also deep in right-field on a host of issues. He once told a Florida radio station that if "fundamentalist Muslims" attacked the United States with a nuclear device, Washington should retaliate by bombing Mecca.

Two other key actors for the Bush administration in Sudan are Robert Seiple, the former CEO of World Vision, a Christian aid and advocacy organization active in 22 African countries, and Andrew Natsios, head administrator for the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) from 2001 to 2006, when he was appointed Special Envoy to the Sudan.

According to John Eibner, chief executive officer of Christian Solidarity International, "domestic pressure" from Christian groups played a key role in pushing the United States to get involved in Sudan (Boston Globe, June 7, 2006). Seiple, a former Marine pilot in Vietnam, was appointed to the CIRF when it was formed in 1998 and lobbied for supporting the armed resistance to the Khartoum government.

Natsios is a controversial figure because he opposed distributing drugs to combat HIV/AIDS in Africa when he was the USAID administrator. He was quoted in the Boston Globe as saying that patients would be unable to take medications on time, because Africans "don’t know what Western time is. Many people in Africa have never seen a clock or a watch their entire lives." The comment stirred anger among Africans, AIDS activists, and others.

Those running the Bush administration’s strategy for Africa use the rhetoric of "freedom" and "stability," but their policies have seen an increasing military presence on the continent, including U.S. intervention in Somalia and the establishment of alliances with authoritarian governments in Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia, and Chad.

Some are skeptical about the benefits of the Bush administration’s designs for Africa. "Many African affairs analysts remain unconvinced [that the U.S. primary concern is not oil], perceiving a race with China for the control of the continent with potentially unsavory consequences for Africans," writes Nigerian-based journalist Dulue Mbachu (ISN Security Watch, February 19, 2007). Nicole Lee of TransAfrica, the leading African-American organization concerned with U.S.-Africa foreign policy, is more blunt, reports Mbachu: "This is nothing short of a sovereignty and resource grab."

The National Energy Policy Development Group estimates that by 2015, a quarter of U.S. oil imports will come from Africa. Most of these will come from the Gulf of Guinea, but Sudan has the second largest reserves on the continent.

Many of the Bush administration’s central players in this have close ties to Vice President Dick Cheney. It was Cheney’s National Policy Energy Development Group that recommended back in 2001 that the United States "make energy security a priority of our trade and foreign policy," a blueprint the administration has closely adhered to.

Given the actors and the script, it is hard not to conclude that the Bush administration’s strategy for Africa is less about freedom and God than about oil and earthly power.

Conn Hallinan, a contributor to Right Web (rightweb.irc-online.org), is an analyst for Foreign Policy In Focus, a freelance medical writer, and a former provost at the University of California at Santa Cruz.

 

Citations

Conn Hallinan, "Africa: The Right's Stuff," Right Web Analysis (Somerville, MA: International Relations Center, March 7, 2007).

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