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U.S.-AU Disconnect on Libya

Top officials from the African Union visited Washington last week to discuss relations between the U.S. and the emerging pan-African body. It was U.S.-AU Disconnect on Libyathe second such meeting, and a joint statement was released outlining the “full range” of U.S.-Africa priorities, including democratic governance, economic development, health and peace and security issues.

On democratic governance, always a top priority in such formal talks for American administrations, the U.S. praised the AU for its role in restoring democracy to Guinea and Niger, where non-democratically elected leaders sought to usurp power in recent months.  It also applauded the AU’s strong, unified stance on Cote D’Ivoire in support of democratically elected leader Alassane Ouattara, despite its inability to impact the situation before French and UN troops intervened alongside opposition forces to remove incumbent Laurent Gbagbo from power.

AU chairman Jean Ping discussed many of the current challenges, particularly related to peace and security initiatives, impacting the organization in a speech at the U.S. Institute of Peace. As Ping pointed out, the mechanisms the AU currently has to deal with conflict are indeed improving, and the U.S. praised the AU for its role in Somalia, where it has about 8,000 peacekeepers holding the line on a very combustible situation.

There remains, however, a rather large gap in U.S. and AU thinking on Libya.  While both parties would like to see an immediate end to the hostilities there, the AU is clearly comfortable with one of it’s foremost patrons staying in power  (click here for a look at Colonel Qadaffi’s continental reach) whereas the U.S. and its allies, not to mention the Libyan rebels, have made Qadaffi’s departure a top priority, official or not.  And African leaders, alongside AU officials, have been quite vocal about their disapproval of foreign military intervention on African soil – which they say evokes the days of colonialism and neo-colonialism.  Hence, the so-called AU “road map” for peace in Libya stands little chance of gaining traction, at least until all other options have been exhausted.

But what does this mean for U.S. relations with Africa?  Jonathan Stevenson of the U.S. Naval War college, writing in Foreign Policy, notes that Libya presents the first test for the U.S.  military command in Africa, known as AFRICOM. Currently located in Stutgart, Germany, the command has yet to find a home on the continent itself, primarily out of African countries’ concern regarding its intentions.  The Libya intervention is likely to bolster such suspicions.

Furthermore, Stevenson notes that the U.S. must do a better job at understanding the nuances of African politics — knowing when to support regimes and when to apply pressure —  if it hopes to maintain access to much need natural resources, especially as China ratchets up its presence on the continent.  Libya, in this respect, is a critical test case.   “Although a deeply flawed and unquestionably hypocritical organization, the AU easily beats its sorry predecessor,” he writes.  “And it’s all we’ve got.”



Robert Nolan

Robert Nolan is Editor-in-Chief of New Media at the Foreign Policy Association and a writer and producer of the Great Decisions Television Series on PBS. A former Peace Corps volunteer in Zimbabwe and graduate of the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University, he has interviewed numerous heads of state, Nobel Prize winners, artists and musicians, and policymakers.

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