I spent much of last week working with Mark, who used to post to this blog, fill out his annual compliance forms for his government contracts. This year, the hardest problem we had to address was the question whether any of any of his employees, officers, directors etc. etc had been in locations with proximity to terrorism (25 miles) and/or had contact with potential non-state actors. Considering that I was about fifteen miles from the Boston Marathon finish line and Mark’s company is in Kenya and Israel, we knew this was going to be a tough slog.
But Mark has graver concerns. As has has written about on this blog, he travels widely throughout Africa and Central Asia for business, and he tells me that he doesn’t think he has been in any country in those regions in 2013 that don’t qualify as failing states, and which don’t have terrorists encamped on at least some portion thereof. He was telling me that as he drives around Africa, he is increasingly seeing warning signs, apparently placed by the United Nations, warning people that they are leaving “areas of national control,” meaning that the ostensible government of that state no longer eve has a pretense of controlling its national territory. Whether we are talking Kenya, Sudan, South Sudan, Nigeria, Somalia, Congo, Central African Republic, Mali, Libya, Egypt, Ethiopia, Eritrea and on and on and on, the entire continent of Africa is descending into tribal chaos into which other actors are assuming greater control. Even South Africa appears to be showing stress fractures at the tribal level, fractures which were tightly controlled and concealed during the Mandela funeral. Indeed, Al Qaeada seems to control swaths of territory in Africa, and the group will leave you alone provided that you pay the road tolls, but are American companies allowed to pay those tolls? Or do they have to be reported?
In the past seven years, one of the most remarkable stories in world trade has been the rediscovery of Africa, which is mineral and oil rich, strategically positioned for global trade and relatively stable. China and India see vast realms of opportunity, as do American, European and Israeli companies who have swarmed to Africa. When Obama was elected, there was tremendous excitement that an American president from Kenya would understand the pivotal place in the world of emerging African states. Instead, American policy has served to destabilize traditional African power structures, creating chaos and anarchy that threatens global stability. By way of example is a minor little news story that has been making the news overseas but not here.
Remember the Sinai Peninsula? A little background. The Sinai brushes up against a minor waterway called the Suez Canal, which just so happens to be the most important trade passage on the planet in the age of supertankers and container ships. In 1956, Europeans and the Israelis, concerned about terrorist control of the canal, attempted to take over the canal, only to be barked at by President Eisenhower. After the 1967 war, the Israelis sat on one side of that canal, ushering in a period of cold peace that allowed the global trade route to flourish. When the Sinai given to Egypt after the Camp David Massacre, the solace to the Israelis was that the totalitarian regime was backed by Washington, and Washington agreed to keep the Sinai terrorist free and the canal open. Well, Al Qaeda is pretty much in control of Sinai now, and the American government, in response to its treaty obligations is doing….nothing. Last week, rumblings started in China and Russia, not to mention the Emirate states, that the status quo in Sinai, astride the Suez Canal, just wasn’t acceptable, meaning, what exactly? Well, the message seems to be that if the United States doesn’t do something, someone else will, will raises the spectre of Chinese military action a long way from its national borders. Or a return of the Russians. In a time of alleged international isolation, the Israelis are sitting at the table with some very interesting people discussing mutual self-interest.
As far as I can tell, the United States has no comprehensive policy on Africa, and while the US continues to focus on terror in Pakistan and Afghanistan and Yemen, the terrorists have moved on to bigger and better things. Why engage in piracy in the Indian Ocean when, with a little creativity, they can have a caliphate anchored in Timbuktu and the Suez Canal? In this year in which Obama fretted about beta testing his little software program to protect his feeble political legacy, he’s been ignoring the loss of choke points in global trade to some really ugly people. Lack of policy, lack of leadership, lack of agenda, lack of anything that protects the key to the modern American economy–the ability of Americans to freely buy cheap gadgets made in China and shipped here in huge boxes.
In a year of failures, history will likely show that 2013 was the year that the American president from Kenya lost Africa.