Friday, August 14, 2009

In Africa, Clinton Balances

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton greets Liberians as she arrives at the presidential palace in Monrovia on Thursday. Mrs. Clinton offered support for Liberia's President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, who has faced calls to resign.

Mrs. Clinton's seven-nation trip through Africa, which ends Friday, has been a balancing act between calling for good governance, while protecting U.S.-African economic ties. Those relationships are especially important now, as China, a U.S. economic competitor in Africa, has increasingly invested in the continent, offering loans, building roads and striking deals for commodities.

The US has neglected Africa for decades, only stepping in during times of crisis, and then in a rather perfunctory way -- although George W. Bush did provide a major contribution to fighting AIDS. Africa will become more valuable as a market and of greater strategic importance in the years ahead, dn it behooves the US to act.

Mrs. Clinton's Africa trip is the latest example of her push for so-called personalized diplomacy, which focuses as much on meeting businessmen and civil-society groups as heads of state and diplomats. In her speeches, the secretary underscored the Obama administration's commitment to "soft power" and using trade, technology and aid in addition to military power to protect American interests.

The shift in strategy may improve relations with African governments that chafe at Western criticism, but win less support from Africans themselves. Mrs. Clinton's trip comes as Africans have begun to question their leaders, even under oppressive regimes, more openly.

Cape Verde is a major US aid recipient.

The approach is a stark departure from that of the Bush administration, which in some cases openly challenged close allies. But the soft approach may cause problems of its own. Human-rights organizations could seize on the strategy as a waning of American resolve to exert influence. President Barack Obama's political critics could claim the approach places economic interests over moral obligations.

Such stentorian lecturing of waning political resolved does much to mollify the consciences of the lecturers, yet accomplishes little in practical terms. Moral obligations? To do what? Lecture? Pontificate? How about practical accomplishments?

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