As President Obama visits Senegal, South Africa and Tanzania this week, critics are faulting him for not going to Africa sooner and for lagging behind China’s leaders in capitalizing on the continent’s potential. While there is truth to the complaints — there are good reasons to intensify top-level American engagement in Africa — there is also more to the story.

Once dismissed as an economic backwater, the region has grown rapidly in recent years. China, ravenous for raw materials and new markets, anticipated this shift long ago and has been investing serious time and money there. In March, on his first foreign trip after taking office, Chinese President Xi Jinping visited three African countries.

China’s trade with the continent was nearly $200 billion last year while America’s trade was only about $95 billion. The United States, which for more than a decade has been focused heavily on wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, clearly has catching up to do.

But it’s not as if the administration has ignored the continent entirely. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton made no fewer than three trips to Africa during her tenure, including one last August that took her to nine countries over two weeks. As Mr. Obama is doing, she brought along a delegation of chief executives from leading American companies, a sign that U.S. priorities, like that of many African countries, had shifted from a preoccupation with humanitarian and development aid to trade and investment.

Beijing’s role in Africa, moreover, has its down sides. Even as it pumps money into the region, there’s little attention to local job creation. On big projects it tends to import Chinese workers.

On his trip, Mr. Obama intends to highlight an American agenda that goes beyond China’s mercantilism, including promoting democracy and the rule of law, inspiring a new generation of young Africans and helping their countries develop sustainable agricultural industries.

Despite budget problems, the United States still does a lot of good in Africa. Mr. Obama has backed President George W. Bush’s hallmark anti-AIDS program called PEPFAR and his administration has played critical roles in stabilizing Somalia, combating piracy and helping many African countries counter terrorist groups. The danger is that investments in counter-terrorism — including establishment of a drone base in Niger — are obscuring America’s other non-military contributions.

Whatever the substantive criticisms about Mr. Obama’s trip, it is ironic that he is also being faulted for the cost, which the Washington Post reported was in the range of $60 million to $100 million. Price tags for presidential trips are rarely disclosed but The Post said this one was in the usual ballpark. All president travel and all their trips have similar security, communications and logistics requirements. It’s one necessary cost of being engaged with the world.

Source: New York Times
Source Date: 06/28/2013
Photography: Rebecca Blackwell/Associated Press