Africa mentioned only in passing in all the debates

US Presidential candidates Sen. Obama and McCain during the third and final presidential debate in New York on Wednesday. There was not a single reference or mention of Africa in the last debate. Photo/REUTERS

Africa has been mentioned only fleetingly in the concluded US presidential debates, a reflection of how low the continent rates.

In three debates between Democratic Party candidate Barack Obama and Republican John McCain, as well as one debate between their respective vice presidential running-mates Joe Biden and Sarah Palin, Africa has been mentioned only in passing as a foreign policy or security issue of concern to the US.

In the final debate between Mr Obama and Mr McCain last Wednesday at the Hofstra University in New York, there was not a single reference or mention of Africa.

In the second debate on October 7 at Belmont University in Nashville, Tennessee, there were some passing references to Africa by both Mr Obama and Mr McCain, the focus mostly being on the situation in Darfur, Sudan, and the issue of US support for any intervention. There were also references to Somalia, the Rwanda genocide.

The first debate on September 26 at the University of Mississippi saw two fleeting mentions, both by Mr Obama, on his Kenyan origins and on Chinese presence in Africa.

According to Prof Walter Mead, a Senior Fellow for US foreign policy at the Council on Foreign Relations, the dearth of African issues at the debates cannot be interpreted to mean that the continent does not matter.

"In debates the things presidential candidates spend time on what they disagree on," he says, "that's not a sign that there is no interest in Africa".

Prof Reed says that in fact there has been more attention to Africa during the Bush presidency, qualifying that assertion, however, with the observation "some welcomed, some not".

He insists that Africa is growing as a US foreign policy interests, citing specifically the growing importance of importation of oil from Africa.

For that reason, he says, the US has a deep interest in stability on the continent, particularly the oil-producing states in West Africa.

If Mr Obama becomes president, he says, that will give renewed interest to African issues. That will be because Mr Obama will not just be the first African-American president, but one whose own father was an African, a Kenyan national.

This interests may lead to push for increased US humanitarian assistance to the continent, with the push likely to come from all sides of the social and political spectrum.

The left, traditionally advocates of increased aid, may re-double their efforts, while the Christian right may also seek government support as a means on extending its growing efforts on the continent.   

Other African issues of interest as US foreign policy concerns, he says, include security, particularly the ever-present threat of terrorism. He describes the 1998 terrorist bomb attacks on US embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam as warning signs.

The US, he says, will remain involved in countering terrorism not just as on the security front but in promoting the capacity of African states to govern themselves.     

Prof Mead also cites Egypt as a country that remains a key player in efforts towards solution of the Middle East crisis.

His observations on Africa's importance to US foreign policy as read from the presidential debates, however, are not supported by his own assessments. In a lengthy presentation on foreign policy priorities for the next US president, Prof Mead did not once mention Africa, referring to the continent only when prompted.

In his own list the priorities are Asia, particularly the growing clout of China and India; Europe and he new assertiveness of Russia; the Middle East, and in particular Iraq and Iran and the Israeli-Palestinian issue.

The First Presidential Debate, September 26: University of Mississippi, Oxford Mississipi

KENYA (Obama): Well, let me just make a closing point. You know, my father came from Kenya. That’s where I get my name. And in the 60s, he wrote letter after letter to come to college here in the United States because the notion was that there was no other country on earth where you could make it if you tried. The ideals and the values of the United States inspired the entire world.

CHINA (Obama): We’ve got challenges, for example, with China, where we are borrowing billions of dollars. They now hold a trillion dollars’ worth of our debt. And they are active in regions like Latin America, Asia and Africa. The conspicuousness of their presence is only matched by our absence, because we’ve been focused on Iraq.

The Second Presidential Debate, October 7: Belmont University, Nashville, Tennessee

Moderator TOM BROKAW: Lets see if we can establish tonight the Obama doctrine and the McCain doctrine for the use of United States combat forces in situations where there's a humanitarian crisis, but it does not affect our national security.

Take the Congo, where 4.5 million people have died since 1998, or take Rwanda in the earlier dreadful days, or Somalia. What is the Obama doctrine for use of force that the United States would send when we don't have national security issues at stake?

DARFUR, RWANDA AND SOMALIA (Obama): Well, we may not always have national security issues at stake, but we have moral issues at stake. If we could have intervened effectively in the Holocaust, who among us would say that we had a moral obligation not to go in?

If we could’ve stopped Rwanda, surely, if we had the ability, that would be something that we would have to strongly consider and act. So when genocide is happening, when ethnic cleansing is happening somewhere around the world and we stand idly by, that diminishes us.

And so I do believe that we have to consider it as part of our interests, our national interests, in intervening where possible. But understand that there’s a lot of cruelty around the world. We’re not going to be able to be everywhere all the time. That’s why it’s so important for us to be able to work in concert with our allies.

Let’s take the example of Darfur just for a moment. Right now there’s a peacekeeping force that has been set up, and we have African Union troops in Darfur to stop a genocide that has killed hundreds of thousands of people.

We could be providing logistical support, setting up a no-fly zone at relatively little cost to us, but we can only do it if we can help mobilise the international community and lead. And that’s what I intend to do when I’m president.

McCain: The United States of America is the greatest force for good, and we must do whatever we can to prevent genocide, whatever we can to prevent these terrible calamities that we have said never again.

But it also has to be tempered with our ability to beneficially affect the situation. That requires a cool hand at the tiller. This requires a person who understands what the limits of our capability are. We went into Somalia as a peacekeeping operation and we ended up having to withdraw in humiliation.

And I may have to make those tough decisions. But I won’t take them lightly. And I understand that we have to say never again to a Holocaust and never again to Rwanda. But we had also better be damn sure we don’t leave and make the situation worse, thereby exacerbating our reputation and our ability to address crises in other parts of the world.

The Biden-Palin Vice Presidential Debate, October 2, 2008: Washington University in St Louis, Missouri

Moderator GWEN IFILL: Senator, You argued for intervention in Bosnia and Kosovo, initially in Iraq and Pakistan and now in Darfur, putting U.S. troops on the ground. Is this something the American public has the stomach for?

BOSNIA, DARFUR and CHAD (Biden): I think the American public has the stomach for success. My recommendations on Bosnia. I admit I was the first one to recommend it. They saved tens of thousands of lives.

I don't have the stomach for genocide when it comes to Darfur. We can now impose a no-fly zone. It's within our capacity. We can lead NATO if we're willing to take a hard stand. We can, I've been in those camps in Chad.

I've seen the suffering, thousands and tens of thousands have died and are dying. We should rally the world to act and demonstrate it by our own movement to provide the helicopters to get the 21,000 forces of the African Union in there now to stop this genocide.