I finally got around to reading Thomas P.M. Barnett's long story on Africa and Africom yesterday and this afternoon. Having traveled in the region at roughly the same time the US was going 'kinetic' I have to say the article rings true, once you get past the insouciant brutality or brutal insouciance he brings to the subject. Reading comments that make light of the work 'Western Celebrities' do in Africa plus paragraphs filled with talk of 'eyeballs on flies' and 'globalization's frightening reformatting process' (as if the globe were just a floppy you can insert and eject from an old IBM 286) reminded me of reading a wingersphere blog. Violence is serious business and deserves to be treated with more respect than the current combination of bureaucratic sanitation and frat-boy bravado. My literary critique aside the substance of Barnett's story is undeniable.
First I must attend to two blemishes in the article. This graf is too oversimplified:
In the Horn of Africa, when you're talking urban, middle-class, educated, commercial, and connected, you're more likely describing Christian populations, and when you're talking rural, impoverished, uneducated, agrarian, and off-grid, you're mostly describing Muslim villages.
Not exactly--it's more like a little of both and none at the same time. Historically--within the last 250 years--a large portion of the urban, commercial population in this part of Africa has been Muslims who profited from the slave trade. The educated and connected populations were surprisingly not urbanites but small-freehold farmers in Ethiopia, who happen to be Christians. To this day 75% of the population is rural. And if you need a dash of commercial cosmopolitanism read no further than this.
My second complaint is more along the lines of a "do we really know what we're getting ourselves into" type of question. For example:
Djibouti welcomes the Americans as a counterweight to its neighbors, none of whom have the country's best interests in mind. To the north is Eritrea, which broke off from Ethiopia years back and favors Somalia against their common archrival. Landlocked Ethiopia to the west wants a stable Djibouti primarily for its access to the sea. But as Addis Ababa doesn't mind fomenting trouble in Somalia, to Djibouti's south, the relationship is frequently strained.
As I noted in the margin of the story, "this is the nut of the argument." Who's using who here and for what purposes? For starters, most Americans, if they know where Somalia is, think it's one big country wrapped around the Horn of Africa, ignorant of the fact that what was once whole is now three entities: Somaliland, Puntland and the rump state of Somalia which Ethiopia invaded in December. Djibouti is in the middle--but how does Eritrea fit into all this? And the Ethiopians too. All questions left unanswered that could have been explored.
Those quibbles aside it's a fascinating tour of our emerging Africa strategy. Some things we're doing right, which I can personally attest to, having learned all about sinking water wells from a returning officer on my flight to Dubai. Of course, there are some things we've done wrong, as well. Those, of course, are obvious (here and here and here and here). Still, Barnett's story is worth your time.
One last thing, however, stuck in my craw. The article is laced with a kind of, 'we screwed up Iraq so we're going to try and get this one right' feel to it. I can't help but wonder, maybe we should spend more time doing social work at home, as opposed to abroad? Hasn't Africa been a Western laboratory long enough already? Or do we really not care what the Africans think?