As Obama dithers, North Africa unravels
Disengagement is having dangerous consequences

Reuters

A South Sudan army soldier holds his weapon in Bor, 180 km (108 miles) northwest from capital Juba December 25, 2013.

Article Highlights

  • If Obama’s apathy continues, critics and adversaries worldwide will be fully justified in seeing further evidence of American weakness and decline.

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  • Obama’s disinterest in this spreading instability is surprising given the President’s promise of a new brand of global engagement.

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  • As South Sudan’s conflict escalates rapidly toward outright civil war, President Obama has shown precious little interest.

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South Sudan is in deep trouble.

As South Sudan’s conflict escalates rapidly toward outright civil war, President Obama has shown precious little interest. He has rightly dispatched military forces to protect and extract U.S. citizens, but evacuation hardly constitutes a strategy. Isolated troop deployments, however justifiable, merely underline the broader U.S. retreat across North Africa.

Indeed, the Benghazi terrorist murders opened a 15-month period in which rising violence threatens to drown the region in blood. The list of armed clashes and terrorist attacks is long and growing, as is the list of failed and failing states. White House expressions of humanitarian concern are insufficient. Obama has exhibited neither a clear understanding of the U.S. national interests at stake, nor anything resembling a strategy to protect them.

In Libya, where the murder of ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans remains unavenged and unresolved, the country has continued to disintegrate. As the central government in Tripoli finds itself unable to assert its authority, Libya is fragmenting into ministates run by warlords and terrorists, with oil production curtailed, living standards plunging and bases for militants, smugglers and criminal networks expanding.

Much like Somalia on the eastern end of North Africa, where conditions have changed little during Obama’s presidency, Libya today is essentially a failed state.

In January 2013, terrorists seized an oil refinery in Algeria, taking scores of hostages, and killing almost 40 foreigners based there. This daring raid, coinciding with Obama’s second inaugural, received insufficient attention in America. And while most of the terrorists were ultimately killed, the attack’s significance was clear in Europe and Africa — because it was the first strike in decades against an asset critical to Algeria’s economy.

Shortly thereafter, Al Qaeda-affiliated terrorists, who had already gained control over much of northern Mali, threatened the central government itself. Only outside military intervention led by France reestablished stability and prevented a takeover. Now, however, terrorists in Mali are again on the move.

In the Central African Republic, religious conflict between Muslims and Christians threaten that government, mirroring the ongoing terrorism in Nigeria inflicted by the radical Islamicist group Boko Haram, another Al Qaeda affiliate. Kenya is hardly a rock of stability.

Meantime, though the Muslim Brotherhood and other radicals have been suppressed for the moment in Egypt, they are far from gone, as Cairo’s military rulers know well from long experience. Tunisia, origin of the failed Arab Spring, remains on the edge of turmoil, and the illusory promise of greater Middle Eastern democracy has failed throughout the region, from Syria to Yemen.

Where is America? The contrast between Obama’s disengagement in, say, Sudan, and George W. Bush’s active engagement is striking. Bush’s diplomacy produced a cease-fire in the decades-long conflict between Arab Islamicists in Khartoum, and southern, largely Christian populations, followed by a 2011 referendum allowing South Sudan to become independent.

That arduous effort is now in jeopardy. Civil war between rival South Sudanese factions, largely along tribal lines, could provide the Khartoum regime an excuse to intervene militarily and resubjugate South Sudan. At a minimum, Omar al-Bashir’s dictatorial regime could seize the disputed Abeyi region, believed to be rich in oil deposits. A proposed pipeline to carry South Sudan’s oil through Kenya to Indian Ocean terminals (rather than pumping it through pipelines in Sudan controlled by Bashir’s regime) is most unlikely to proceed during an armed conflict.

Obama’s disinterest in this spreading instability is surprising given the President’s promise of a new brand of global engagement.

America has several significant strategic stakes in North Africa. First is preventing Al Qaeda and other terrorists from increasing their influence or even seizing control of African states they can convert into bases for terrorism.

Second, economic development, especially producing key raw materials like oil and natural gas that can enter global commerce, can increase living standards in the producing countries.

Third, so doing thereby prevents other powers like China (keenly interested and heavily invested in oil production in Sudan, for example) from increasing their influence at our expense.

If Obama’s apparent apathy continues, critics and adversaries worldwide will be fully justified in seeing further evidence of American weakness and decline.

Bolton, former U.S. permanent representative to the United Nations, is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.

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John R.
Bolton
  • John R. Bolton, a diplomat and a lawyer, has spent many years in public service. From August 2005 to December 2006, he served as the U.S. permanent representative to the United Nations. From 2001 to 2005, he was under secretary of state for arms control and international security. At AEI, Ambassador Bolton's area of research is U.S. foreign and national security policy.

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