The power vacuum

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Right here on earth. Hell exists. Famine, preventable diseases like malaria, yellow fever and cholera seem almost merciful – because once death comes, the sick are released from their earthly prison.  When the suffering finally abates, there is grace in that moment.  There are things worse than death.  Rape, fistula, sex slavery and child soldiers are becoming ever more common.  For decades, the images of suffering in Africa are pervasive. People make jokes about leaving food on their plate, instead of giving it to the starving children of Africa. It isn’t a joke though.  Just in my lifetime, the “skinnies” in Ethiopia, or hundreds of thousands of others across the continent suffered from waterborne illnesses that steal life through excruciating means – the fevers, the diarrhea and vomiting. The appalling conditions in South Africa under Apartheid.  The stories about Stephen Biko still ring in my ears. Or Mandela. Darfur. Blood Diamonds. Conflict minerals. The Congo.

The unfairness of human life is evident. Good people die every day. In Africa, in the United States, everywhere.  Hell exists in the margins for most of us, for others it is the only life they will ever know.  A few people have stepped into the breach as advocates for awareness, truth, and building a tangible progress to uplift humanity.  People like Samantha Power. John Prendergast. Nate “Oteka” Henn, an advocate with Invisible Children – who was watching the World Cup when he died in the bombings carried out by Al Shabaab in Kampala, Uganda. Terrorism indeed.

Advocates work tirelessly. However, the domestic political agenda is all too often the altar on which foreign aid, good governance, and national security is sacrificed.  The silence emanating from some notable “advocates” in the Obama administration is deafening.  Tragic even. After all those beautifully written speeches, turns out: they were “just words” after all.

President Obama sported a One Campaign white bracelet during his presidential campaign. He said lots of nice things. About doubling foreign aid, making debt forgiveness a priority, and he promised to approach ending the genocide in Darfur with “unstinting resolve.”

The implications were simple: Where Clinton failed in Rwanda, Obama would not.  Where Bush designated the situation in Darfur genocide, it wasn’t enough.  When Bush exponentially increased aid to Africa, built PEPFAR and saved millions of lives from AIDS, it wasn’t enough.  When Bush made a case for AfriCom, advocated investing in Africa’s safety – it wasn’t enough. President Barack Obama would set it right. Vote him in, and Africa will get hope again. Obama would finish the job. Never mind the accomplishments of the 43rd President.

As a Republican, I’ve seen this before.  I felt that way when I watched our men die and be torn apart on the streets in Mogadishu, only to witness President Clinton running from Somalia; knowing that extremists, like the man they were meant to catch, Mohammed Farah Aidid, were aligning themselves with the money men, jihad exporting weapons traffickers like Osama bin Laden and knowing the job was unfinished, that many were still starving and that genocidal intent drove the worst actors.

I remember presidents of both parties paying lip service to Africa. Then came George W. Bush and his compassionate conservatism. Even Vanity Fair acknowledged that “Bush’s record in Africa is really good.”

Through PEPFAR, the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, spending increased and – so did success. When Bill Clinton left office, the aftertaste of neglect in Rwanda and his efforts only saw approximately 50,000 people receive anti-retrovirals. When Bush left office, it was more than Three Million.  Lives were being saved. The Millennium Development Goals were set, Condi Rice was a Founding Member of the Millennium Challenge Corporation, and America was on track.  Bush directed the Department of Defense to set up a command, focused on Africa. AfriCom was born.

For a long time, I admired Samantha Power’s commitment. Her work. Her constant pursuit of truth.

Eighteen months into the Obama Administration, there is precious little to praise.  Africa is fighting the same enemies we fear in the United States.  But they are also fighting extreme poverty, famine, preventable diseases, AIDS/HIV, war, and for their lives on every front imaginable.  Funding has been cut. Obama supporters will tell you it’s necessary because of the recession. It’s Bush’s fault.

Here’s the thing. The President made an oath. The American people expect our president to do what’s right – not just for today, but for tomorrow.  We expect change. We welcome it.  We entrust each president with the Constitution, with protecting our freedom. His staff has a responsibility to uphold the oaths they take, when they are sworn in to office as well.

The president is also our representative to the world.  Throughout George W. Bush’s tenure in office, with the exception of the immediate aftermath of the terror attacks on September 11th, many in the human rights community as well as almost every left-leaning pundit and leader, talked about restoring America’s credibility in the world. So much concern for America’s reputation abroad was expressed that many, even centrists and some establishment Republicans, chimed in. In 2004, John Kerry wasn’t a viable alternative – even in the midst of the unpopular Iraq War.

In 2008, the nation was ripe for change. War weary, concerned about domestic issues and kitchen-table issues, the American electorate elected Barack Obama and his team in a landslide. Europe had a friend. Africa had a friend.

That was then. Today, the American people want accountability. Deliverables for all those pretty words and promises made. Instead, once again, the same issues are exacerbated by exploding debt, by terror strikes seemingly on the rise, and by bombings in Africa.

The American people remember more than Rwanda. They remember the Embassy bombings in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania and Nairobi, Kenya. They remember that President Bill Clinton bombed an aspirin factory in Sudan, as well as targets in Afghanistan.  They remember that the Sudanese President was named Omar al-Bashir and that he gave safe passage to Osama bin Laden and his cohorts, like Zayman Al Zawahiri. Muhammed Atef. They know other actors hid in Somalia.  They remember.  They may not recite every detail but they remember.

They wonder why Osama Bin Laden was not captured on Bush’s watch. They want answers. Why is Sudan’s al-Bashir, indicted again today by the International Criminal Court, being legitimized by President Barack Obama? Through lack of teeth in his policy, he sanctions the ongoing genocide of black Africans in Darfur by al-Bashir’s Janjaweed and other militias.

I have read dozens, hundreds of reports in the last few years. Sadly, they are produced by “people who sit in offices.”

For answers, I look to the outspoken Samantha Power. Her article, which appeared in The Atlantic in September 2001,  “Bystanders to Genocide” is more relevant today than it ever was. My admiration for Mrs. Cass Sunstein, [ahem, Glenn Beck] wavers.  Cass Sunstein has arguably accomplished a great deal of the President’s domestic agenda, but I wonder why the same cannot be said for the anti-genocide agenda. IS it really that hard to stand up and say “The US Government will not stand idly by as thousands die.”

Genocide rages on in Sudan, where a Rwanda-esque tragedy may occur yet again due to the tensions with the oil-rich lands in the South.  Genocide rages in the Congo, where estimates are 45,000 die every month. The war in Congo is the bloodiest since World War II. The latest UN report says there are 200,000 documented rapes.

I ask only that Samantha Power and the whole of the human rights community recognize that pursuit of President Obama and the Democratic majority’s domestic agenda has placed real action in Africa on the altar for sacrifice. All the advocacy in the world does not matter if we look away when our own political team fails. I know this from experience.

If Samantha Power is advocating for teeth in American policy with regard to Sudan, then unleash her. Fire the feckless, hapless and incompetent instrument of president Obama’s policy, Gen. Scott Gration.  Let Bashir face Samantha Power. She possesses all the necessary skill, political and intellectual acumen, supporters, and firepower to defeat Bashir.

Ask this of ourselves, and our government today:

Who were the people in his Administration who made the life-and-death decisions that dictated U.S. policy? Why did they decide (or decide not to decide) as they did? Were any voices inside or outside the U.S. government demanding that the United States do more? If so, why weren’t they heeded? And most crucial, what could the United States have done to save lives? —Samantha Power

Who are those people, President Obama. Who indeed?

Elizabeth Blackney is best known as a media & communications strategist to private sector clients, US Senate & Gubernatorial campaigns, as a political emissary, confidante and commentator.