US election: Africa forgotten in foreign policy debate

By IndepthAfrica
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Oct 26th, 2012
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I have watched both televised presidential campaign debates in the US election, including the first vice-presidential debate. So I was very excited to watch the final presidential debate on foreign policy. But I have to admit that this final debate disappointed me because it was more about domestic politics than foreign policy.

Both candidates, President Obama and the Republican Mitt Romney, in my view failed to stay on topic and answer each question fully. Governor Romney proved notorious for going off topic. Comparatively, President Obama performed well, but he also spent more time talking about domestic topics such as the economy, education, etc., in an effort to counter Romney’s arguments.

Here is how the ‘foreign policy’ debate, more or less, played out: Romney argued Obama’s promises have hardly materialized, that is, Obama is a failure. Obama fought back labeling Romney’s future policies as ‘wrong and reckless.’ And Romney retaliated, somehow defensively, saying, ‘You keep attacking me, but attacking me won’t create jobs.’

I should note that the moderator almost lost control and appeared invisible as the two candidates consistently dragged the debate from foreign policy to domestic policy. That was unfortunate, and the moderator was partly to blame.

I now believe women are better moderators, especially when two men are debating. I say that based on the effective second presidential debate, which Candy Crowley, CNN’s chief political correspondent, moderated.

Moving on, what other reasons made the debate disappointing besides the fact it was barely about foreign policy? Certainly, I did not get a clear picture of the candidates’ foreign policy agendas and how the two differ. Only one comment Obama made somehow gave the illusion that the two are different:

‘When it comes to our foreign policy, you [Romney] seem to want to import the foreign policies of the 1980s, just like the social policies of the 1950s and the economic policies of the 1920s.’

But as the debate progressed and the two talked about their foreign policy goals, there was no huge difference between them. In fact, both Romney and Obama complimented or congratulated each other on many occasions. They agreed on most of Middle Eastern policies. They had a similar approach to religious extremism. Both said they would attack whoever would attack Israel, a rhetoric that pointed to Iran.

As an African, an Ethiopian, my primary interest was to see whether they would discuss Africa in the debate. Sadly, neither had Africa (that is, ‘sub-Saharan Africa’) on mind, nor were they asked about it. Mali and Somalia were mentioned within the context of Islamic extremism, but like Libya, Tunisia, and Egypt, these countries entered the debate as part of the Middle Eastern geopolitics, not under the Africa umbrella. So, realistically speaking, one can argue Africa had no place in the foreign policy debate. That means whoever is elected will just recycle the same old policies on Africa.

This last debate would have been a great opportunity for both Romney and Obama to discuss Africa’s growing importance in the global economy and to point out America’s role in its future vis-à-vis China’s. Considering the lack of attention given to Africa in serious foreign policy debates, it seems justifiable that most African countries look more towards China for bilateral cooperation. No wonder most African countries believe that the US, unlike China, fails to acknowledge them as equal partners.

In addition to Israel, Iran, Egypt, Tunisia, Somalia and Mali, the candidates also mentioned China, Russia, Syria, Pakistan, Iraq, and Afghanistan repeatedly during the debate.

From a national security perspective, it makes perfect sense those countries topped the list. But the fact the debate almost entirely dealt with national security makes one think that the US is not really serious about promoting trade, democracy and good governance around the world, and especially in Africa.

As Romney and Obama debated on US-China trade relations, I doubt Europe, Latin America and Sub-Saharan Africa crossed their minds.

I could say Obama came out of the debate as the winner, but since he has been in office for four years, he had an advantage over Romney. I expected more from him. On the other hand, Romney, as my friend said, chose to focus on what he knew best, and that was domestic issues. It was understandable why he kept running away from foreign policy. In general, there was nothing new I learned from the debate. For that reason, I say I was disappointed.

However, regardless of the debate’s outcome, I must say that I am a big fan of the political culture in the United States. It is fairly transparent and civil. It has taught me that it is okay to agree to disagree, that what happens in politics stays in politics. As much as possible, nothing should be taken personally.

Candidates fight for their ideas, but they still must respect each other as individuals. That is a great lesson for me, coming from a country where people see each other as bitter enemies due to ideological differences. The fact Obama and Romney can tear each other apart in front of millions of viewers, and at the end of their ‘fight’ shake hands and smile, regardless of how they feel inside, that I find amazing and I believe it is what makes America a strong democracy. That is the kind of democratic culture I would love to see growing in Ethiopia.

Democracy is about fighting for ideas with ideas, not about throwing punches or insults, which are only signs of immaturity. I hope Ethiopia’s politicians, both the ruling party and the oppositions, are taking lessons from these open debates in the United States.

We also have traditions of debating in rural Ethiopia, which can be incorporated as part of the borrowed debate culture. Nothing is wrong with adopting a useful practice from outside, but we must never undervalue or forget our own.

Another issue related to the debate: I cannot wait to see Ethiopian TV and radio becoming public service media, like CSPAN, instead of being tools of the government, and by extension, of the ruling party. Ethiopia must open up the space for private, but moderately or self-regulated, vibrant media that can do a better journalistic job than the state-owned TV and radio.

  Elyas Mulu Kiros Blogs at www.kweschn.wordpress.com

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