Expert: Africa Command Could Boost U.S. Efforts

Susan Rice, a senior fellow with the Brookings Institution, argues that AFRICOM should help the U.S. give Africa more humanitarian and military help.

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FARAI CHIDEYA, host:

And now we turn to Susan Rice, a senior fellow with the Brookings Institution and former assistant secretary of state for African affairs. She argues that AFRICOM should help the U.S. give Africa more humanitarian and military help.

Ms. SUSAN RICE (Senior Fellow, Brookings Institution): The State Department and our ambassadors on the ground in each of the countries will retain the leadership and responsibility for all the different U.S. government agencies and programs that are operating in their territories. So we're not subordinating development or diplomacy to the Defense Department. What we're doing is making sense of what's been a crazy system.

CHIDEYA: With all of the humanitarian crisis going on on the continent - and I myself just got back from southern Africa - will this allow the United States to be more engaged as a powerful member of the international community, or will we see fairly similar degrees of action and engagement to what we see now?

Ms. RICE: The short answer is we don't know. But what this does do is increase the potential for more constructive and active U.S. engagement. For this very reason, if you have one combatant command whose sole responsibility it is to pay attention to what's going on in Africa, that single combatant command is much more likely to give it the focus and the attention and the priority that Africa deserves than would be the case if Africa were just a slice, and indeed a minor slice, of their entire area of responsibility, as is the case now. So, if you're the European commander, Africa is really an afterthought compared to Europe, the former Soviet Union and the huge geographical space that it entails. Or if you're the Central Command, you're focused principally on Iraq and Afghanistan, not Africa.

And so Africa has been divided up and been the poor stepchild in each of these different commands and not gotten the full attention it deserves. So now that it will be consolidated under a single command I think there is at least greater potential for the kind of attention and resources that it deserves.

CHIDEYA: When you look at Africa - especially the Horn - and the issue of what the U.S. is calling militant Islam, do you think that was the motivating factor - the key motivating factor - in creating this Africa Command?

Ms. RICE: I don't think that was the principal motivation. I think it was perhaps a motivation. But I know for a fact, going back to the time I served in the U.S. government in the 1990s, that there was consideration back then long before 9/11 being given to the notion of a consolidated Africa Command.

What's happened since 9/11 is that the military has become more involved and engaged in Africa. We now have roughly 1,500 U.S. military personnel based in Djibouti - that never was the case before - to do counter-terrorism, humanitarian operations and strengthening the capacity of militaries, friendly militaries in the region.

The counter-terrorism imperative is real. And I'm sure that has elevated interest in Africa within the Defense Department. But Africa has also been the place where the Defense Department has been called upon to do evacuations of American citizens, to respond in a peacekeeping capacity, to respond to the floods in Mozambique or the floods in Ethiopia. So this is yet another reason for heightened interest, but I wouldn't say that counter-terrorism was the sole reason.

CHIDEYA: Another issue on the table: oil. When I was in southern Africa, there were huge numbers of visits by the Chinese premier to different southern African nations. China appears to be investing heavily in Africa. Is this also, this Africa Command, tied into our need to address the flow of oil from Africa or the encroaching competition, I suppose, from China for that oil?

Ms. RICE: No, I don't think so. I mean, we're going to continue to look to Africa as a principal supplier of America's imported oil. Right now, most of our oil from Africa comes from Nigeria and Angola, to a lesser extent from Equatorial Guinea. It's amounts to about 15 percent of our oil imports. It is expected to grow to about 25 percent of our oil imports.

And that would happen in a relatively certain sense, with or without the establishment of the Africa Command. And with respect to China, again, I don't think that's a principle motivation, although there is obviously a great deal of interest, if not concern, in quarters back in Washington about China's increasingly prevalent and activist role on the continent.

But we're not going to confront China's prominence in Africa through military means as in the Cold War. It'll need to be principally through political and diplomatic and economic means. So I think that degree of competition, if there is such a thing, and I imagine there is, wouldn't play out in the military arena in all likelihood anyway.

CHIDEYA: Susan, given your experience at the State Department, what level of trust is there between the United States and the many dozens of countries that make up the African continent? And will this, in all honesty, add to trust or take away from trust?

Ms. RICE: Well, Farai, I think it varies enormously from country to country within Africa. There are a number of African countries, I'd say the majority of African countries, with which the United States really has very constructive and cooperative relation. So there is a good baseline upon which to build. The problem is the niceties are all there.

What the United States hasn't done is investing in preventing and resolving conflict, bringing greater security and human security to people in Africa; doing even more than we started to do in recent years on, preventing and controlling and treating disease, and dealing with the issues like poverty, which so horribly affect millions and millions of Africans on a daily basis.

CHIDEYA: Well we'll certainly come back to you for more on developments on the continent. Susan Rice, thank you so much.

Ms. RICE: Thank you.

CHIDEYA: Susan Rice is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and former assistant secretary of state for African affairs.

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CHIDEYA: Just ahead, are critics of the Bush administration making Condi Rice their punching bag? And another look at the Grammys from a very tough critic. Plus, a look at the graduation gap between black men and black women.

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