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Why Obama's Africa trip is overdue
Is the visit, which starts Wednesday, a waste of money, or will it pay big dividends?
Many Africans say it's about time Obama turned his attention toward their continent.
Many Africans say it's about time Obama turned his attention toward their continent.
Cherie Diez/ZUMA Press/Corbis
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resident Obama has faced criticism for the expense of his Africa trip, which begins Wednesday and is expected to cost taxpayers $100 million. Obama administration officials, however, say the June 26 to July 3 visit — which will include stops in Senegal, Tanzania, and South Africa — is a well worth the expense, as it will yield both political and economic benefits.

And the visit, perhaps most notably, will be Obama's first extended trip to sub-Saharan Africa as president. He made a largely symbolic, one-day visit to Ghana in 2009, notes John Campbell at the Council on Foreign Relations, but some Africans have expressed disappointment that Obama — whose father was Kenyan — has not focused greater attention on the continent. This trip, Campbell says, "is due, if not overdue," even though Africa's size and relatively poor infrastructure increases the cost of getting Obama around and providing him security.

Is it worth it? Yes. President Obama's trip to Africa will affirm to African and American audiences that the United States recognizes the continent's importance. Closer official bilateral ties with Senegal, Tanzania, and South Africa could also pay dividends in the shorter term on issues ranging from trade liberalization to terrorism. [Council on Foreign Relations]

Obama will be pushing three themes, Campbell says: Trade, democracy-building, and reaffirming American leadership in the face of China's rising influence. Tolu Ogunlesi at Britain's Guardian says that Obama lacked a coherent Africa policy through his first term, and this is an opportunity to fix that.

For in the race to do business with an increasingly prosperous and opportunity-laden continent, America is lagging behind. The United States is no longer Africa's leading trade partner; it lost that position to China in 2009. In contrast to Obama, the new Chinese president, Xi Jinping, visited the continent on his first trip abroad — an indication of its strategic importance to Beijing. It's a perfect partnership: China needs resources and Africa wants cheap imports and investment. Countries such as Japan, Brazil, and Turkey are also aggressively positioning themselves to get in on the act. [Guardian]

Obama also has some catching up to do in Africa if he wants to match the accomplishments by his predecessors, George W. Bush and Bill Clinton. Bush, in his efforts to combat HIV/AIDS on the continent, has been credited with directly supporting antiretroviral treatment for more than 4 million people. Clinton, notes Mark Felsenthal at Reuters, "generated enormous goodwill by becoming the first American president to make more than one trip to Africa and for signing the Africa Growth and Opportunity Act, which dropped trade restrictions on more than 6,000 exports to America from 35 African countries." Clinton was also a friend and supporter of Nelson Mandela — now hospitalized in critical condition at age 94 — as he shepherded South Africa out of the era of white-minority rule.

"Obama has been preoccupied with winding down two foreign wars and the worst financial crisis in the United States since the Great Depression," Felsenthal says. Even though his failure to focus on Africa wasn't his fault, "the elation many Africans felt when the United States elected its first black president, one whose father was a Kenyan, has been replaced by puzzled disappointment." This is Obama's opportunity to hit the re-set button.

Harold Maass is a contributing editor at TheWeek.com. He has been writing for The Week since the 2001 launch of the U.S. print edition. Harold has worked for a variety of news outlets, including The Miami HeraldFox News, and ABC News.

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