In the space of a week, President Barack Obama has taken dramatic action to demonstrate that Africa is on his Administration’s foreign policy agenda. He has nominated Ambassador Johnnie Carson as the new Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs and retired Air Force Major General J. Scott Gration as the Special Envoy to Sudan.
Africa watchers have been wondering over the past several weeks why it was taking so long to have a nomination for the post of Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs. Ambassador Carson was viewed as the front runner since late last year, and his overwhelming experience seemed to make his nomination a fait accompli. Ambassador Carson currently serves as National Intelligence Office for Africa on the National Intelligence Council. He is a three-time ambassador, serving in Kenya, Zimbabwe and Uganda. He was Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of State during the Clinton Administration and staff director for the U.S. House Subcommittee on Africa in the late 1970s. So respected is Ambassador Carson that, even though he is a Democrat, the Bush Administration reportedly was considering him at one time as ambassador to Ethiopia.
Ambassador Carson will face front-burner issues such as Sudan and Somalia, simmering concerns in Kenya and Nigeria, transitions in Cote d’Ivoire and South Africa and difficult to handle issues such as Zimbabwe. He will need all his experience and contacts to hit the ground running, but Africanists inside and outside government expect him to do just that.
Meanwhile, Sudan watchers have been clamoring for someone to replace Richard Williamson, the last Special Envoy to Sudan, especially with the uproar over the International Criminal Court arrest warrant for Sudan President Omar Hassan al-Bashir for complicity in crimes against humanity in his country’s Darfur region. In the wake of that warrant, President Bashir has banned humanitarian aid to Darfur, which threatens hundreds of thousands of lives dependent on foreign food and medical aid.
The key foreign policy officials in the Obama Administration have been known to take a hard-line position on dealing with the Sudanese government. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has called for a no-fly zone over Darfur, while United Nations Ambassador Susan Rice once discussed a bombing campaign to save victims of genocide in Darfur. While there is support in Congress for strong action against the Khartoum government, U.S. allies in NATO and elsewhere have never gone along with such responses. Moreover, coming from such a position, General Gration likely will be met with even more intransigence from Khartoum than his predecessor once removed, Andrew Natsios, who was one of the first U.S. officials to call the killings in Darfur “genocide.” Even though he grew up in Africa as the son of missionaries and speaks Swahili, Gration has been dealt a tough hand in crafting a successful Sudan policy.