The Cable

Has the White House Bungled a Historic Africa Summit?

More than 50 African leaders will descend on Washington in less than a month for the White House's first-ever Africa Summit, which the administration has billed as a historic opportunity to promote its own Africa initiatives, identify trade partners, and foster much-needed counterterrorism cooperation across the continent.

But as the administration scrambles to put the finishing touches on the event, individuals in and out of government worry that the summit, held when little of official Washington is even in town, may end up doing more harm than good. African leaders won't be getting any one-on-one meetings with President Barack Obama, which could leave them feeling snubbed by a leader they've long seen as unusually invested in the continent's future. More importantly, critics say the three-day summit, which begins Aug. 4, may represent a missed opportunity to narrow the growing gap between America's economic ties with African countries and those of China, which has spent years building new commercial relationships across the continent.

J. Peter Pham, the director of the Africa Center for the Atlantic Council in Washington, says the White House still sees Africa through a decades-old framework in which it is viewed as an impoverished continent with country leaders traveling to Washington hat in hand rather than as nations with robust and growing economies. He said the administration's focus on democracy and human rights also risks pushing African leaders into the waiting arms of China, which doesn't let those issues impact its dealings on the continent.

"The bigger picture of course is that Africa has seven of the 10 fastest-growing economies of the world, and numerous other countries are engaging with them on a bilateral basis," Pham said. "China has surpassed us as Africa's biggest trading partner."

According to the State Department, the summit's agenda includes a "U.S.-Africa Business Forum" that will bring together U.S. and African business executives and African leaders "to discuss African trade and investment opportunities and showcase positive new economic realities on the African continent."

But that forum, according to Pham, is being hosted separately and has not been organized to bring American chief executive officers together with specific African leaders to cut deals. Instead, he said, it's more of a loosely organized event taking place on the sidelines of the broader summit. He and other experts say they're not expecting any major deals to be announced during the event.

"Having this big cheerleading session isn't going to drive deals," Pham said. "No one makes a deal based on a meeting that one has for a day."

The administration also plans to focus on the importance of education and human rights -- exactly the sorts of issues China doesn't raise when it comes to business opportunities. On Aug. 6, African leaders will meet with Obama at the State Department, where the president will moderate a panel on "Investing in Africa's Future," another on "Peace and Regional Stability" and a third on "Governing for the Next Generation."

"The discussion will allow us to highlight areas where African governments are registering progress while also providing an opportunity for a candid exchange about how we might deepen our relationship to tackle obstacles to development and the full achievement of fundamental rights," according to a State Department description of the third planned panel.

That could be exactly the wrong approach to take. Jennifer Cooke, the director of the Africa Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said African leaders will inevitably compare their treatment at the American summit with the way they are received by China's leadership.

"When the Chinese do this, it's red carpet, big money, investments and loans, and many bilateral conversations," Cooke said. "They sort of pull out all the stops, and they invite everybody, and there's no talk about human rights and democracy."

For example, the United States has not invited Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe, Omar al-Bashir of Sudan, or Isaias Afwerki of Eritrea, all of whom are seen as having deplorable human rights records that make the White House cringe. China, on the other hand, has shown no compunctions about meeting with -- and doing business with -- countries despite their human rights records.

At a summit China hosted for African leaders in 2012, for instance, the Chinese premier essentially "speed-dated" with dozens of African leaders in back-to-back, 15-minute one-on-one sessions with translators. The Obama administration's summit, in contrast, won't have any such meetings.

"I would guess that some U.S. ambassador has had some pretty difficult conversations with heads of state to say, 'sorry, you will not have a private meeting with the president,'" said one former government official who is paying close attention to the planning effort. "In some countries, those were probably some pretty difficult conversations."

The idea for a summit was first generated inside the White House and then announced by Obama shortly thereafter after the president visited Africa last year. Experts said that visit underscored the importance of the relationship between the United States and Africa. But critics of administration policy also said that it served as a reminder of how countries like China were making economic inroads into those nations and the degree to which the United States needed to play catch-up.

The former government official, who asked to speak on background due to the sensitive political nature of the White House-hosted event, said that there could still be a lot of good to come out of the summit and that African leaders would likely "swallow hard" and attend anyway since the alternative -- not attending -- would pose political challenges at home.

But the former official and others interviewed were surprised that the White House doesn't want to put Obama or other top administration officials in the same room for private discussions with at least some leaders. Such meetings could go a long way to putting those bilateral relationships on much more solid ground, they said, and the United States could benefit greatly by talking directly with the leaders of countries as diverse as South Africa and Nigeria. Personal ties to those leaders will be particularly important going forward as the United States expands its counterterrorism operations against Islamist militants across the continent.

But Ned Price, a spokesman for the National Security Council, said that focusing on the lack of bilateral meetings misses the point of a historic event in which Obama is participating heavily.


"The fact that we are organizing a summit of this scale underscores President Obama and the broader administration's focus on deepening our partnerships with African countries," he said.

And on Wednesday, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, assistant secretary of the State Department's Bureau of African Affairs, defended the administration's approach, saying that "logistical challenges" prevent the bilateral discussions.

"We've made the decision that there will not be one-on-one bilats between the president and the heads of state," she said at a briefing with reporters Wednesday. "There are 54 of them, and what the president plans to do is spend a tremendous amount of quality time during the three days of the summit."

Todd Moss, chief operating officer of the Center for Global Development in Washington, said he thinks the summit is a good idea that could improve key bilateral relationships across the continent even if the event could have had a broader focus to appeal to African leaders.

"If the messaging is right and the process goes well, we can feel good about our bilateral relationships; that is hugely beneficial," Moss said. "But if they walk away thinking they feel as if they got the short end of the stick, if they come away with the message that Americans aren't interested, that is very, very bad."

Pham, meanwhile, said the summit isn't designed to have any formal declaration at its conclusion or action plan for future engagement. A lack of formal outcomes, he said, could leave U.S. and African leaders with a "nice memory of a signature event, but we won't have something concrete and we won't really have moved the needle that much."

Alex Wong/Getty Images

The Cable

Where Are the Russia Sanctions? Senate Hawks Ask Obama Administration

Senators slammed State, Defense, and Treasury department officials Wednesday for not acting on U.S. threats to further sanction Russia if Moscow didn't help calm the crisis in Ukraine and stem the flow of arms across its border.

"I look at what the standards were.… I see no advance in any of those standards, so what are we waiting for?" Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) asked. The Wednesday morning hearing marked the second time he has publicly challenged Barack Obama's administration on a major foreign-policy issue -- the other being it's handling of Iran.

Less surprisingly, Tennessee's Bob Corker, the committee's top Republican, joined Menendez in pounding the administration for inaction on the sanctions front.

"I think that our country, acting like such a paper tiger to the world on this and so many other fronts, is doing incredible long-term damage to our nation," he said.

Senators pushed for stronger sanctions against Russia to curb Moscow's support of separatist militants in eastern Ukraine. Ukraine's military has recently advanced against the armed separatists after President Petro Poroshenko called off a failed cease-fire and ordered troops to take back cities that had fallen to the separatists. Russian President Vladimir Putin has so far rebuffed pleas from the besieged rebels for Moscow to send forces, but some Western leaders still question his long-term motives. NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen warned Tuesday, July 8, that Moscow was being duplicitous in Ukraine by publicly advocating a cease-fire and covertly giving arms to the rebels.

"There's no doubt that Russia is heavily engaged in destabilizing eastern Ukraine, and they continue their activities," Rasmussen told the New York Times.

After Russia annexed Crimea, Washington froze the assets of 45 officials and business associates close to Putin, as well as a handful of companies and banks associated with them. The United States has dangled, but so far not imposed, broader sanctions against Russian industries, such as the energy and defense sectors, which would be much more damaging to the Russian economy but could also stymie the global economy. Russian officials threaten retaliation if the West follows through.

"If the situation continues to develop and sectoral sanctions are imposed, it will be necessary to prepare more serious countermeasures," Russian Deputy Finance Minister Sergei Storchak said Tuesday on the ministry's Facebook page, according to Bloomberg.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry warned Russia at the end of June to disarm the Ukrainian separatists within hours or face sanctions. At the hearing, senators asked administration officials what the holdup is.

Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland agreed that there has been no progress, but argued that sanctions would be more effective with the cooperation of European leaders. However, they're reluctant to use economic weapons against Russia for fear of the collateral damage to the still shaky EU economy.

"We have not seen progress, so in that context, we are continuing to prepare the next round of sanctions," Nuland testified.

Corker said he was "embarrassed" by the administration's "hollow threats" and pressed Nuland on whether the United States is willing to act alone.

"What's really driving our sort of feckless sanctions policy right now?" Corker asked.

Acting alone might not change Russia's policies, Nuland said, and would hurt U.S. companies because European corporations would continue doing business with Moscow.

"We are quite clear that we have not seen the results that we are seeking from Russia, so we are now talking to the Europeans about when it is appropriate to move together," Nuland said.

Photo by KAREN BLEIER/ AFP/ GETTY