I sincerely apologize for having abandoned you for much of the month of September. When last I wrote, I was starting my transit from South Sudan with a brief layover in Kenya, a week of reintegration into DC life, and a week of transition from my current position into a new, albeit temporary one. But I’ll speak to that later.
When I left for my trip in mid-August, I joked to my friends and family that I was relieved to be out of the country for the Republican National Convention (RNC) and the Democratic National Convention (DNC). Election season seems like it started forever ago, and everyone here tends to hold their breath until it’s over. That can get exhausting after a while, so I was happy for a respite.
It had been years since I’d been abroad during election season. I spent most of 2003 and the summer of 2004 in Brazil, where my Brazilian friends would ask me why Americans liked to elect retired wrestlers and body-builders-turned movie stars for governors, and why, oh why we were seriously considering re-electing George W. Bush. It was the first time I realized how much attention people abroad pay to U.S. politics.
I’d forgotten all about that by the time I arrived in Juba last month. My second week there coincided with the RNC, of which I was able to view snippets during a meeting with a government minister who had it playing on his flatscreen (on silent) during our meeting. Grumbling about the diversity, or lack thereof, of the convention, he arose from his armchair to hand me a printout of a Washington post article on the same topic. I was pretty impressed that, not only was he watching the convention, but he or someone in his office was closely following the media coverage of it as well.
Part of the next week, I was in Kenya on my way home, where I was able to catch up on what I’d missed from the DNC with some friends who were, like the South Sudanese minister, following developments closely. This surprised me less, since I’d been with the same group in the spring of 2011 right after Osama bin Laden had been killed and had had a huge disagreement with them over whether or not this, alone, was enough for Barack Obama to win a second term. At the root of my argument was that not only do Americans vote with their pocketbooks (that is, the economy matters most), but also that we’re short-term thinkers and no one would care about the raid on Abottabad a full 18 months after the fact. In spite of our still-heated disagreements on how the American electorate votes, we spent hours pouring over footage, exchanging perspectives on how each speaker did, which constituency we thought they were reaching out to, what veiled message they were trying to get across, etc.
Both of these brief snippets of politically-minded people in South Sudan and Kenya engaging me on the developments in an election in my own country were a welcome addition, since it’s more variety than I get from the major news networks that I channel surf while working out at the gym. Plus, Lord knows when next I’ll be in a position to get like perspectives these so close to presidential elections in 2016, 2020, 2024…
And then I returned to the U.S. And then Chris Stevens, U.S. Ambassador to Libya, and three of his colleagues were killed in the attack on our consulate in Benghazi. And instead of being a pure tragedy that brought our country together, it was politicized, and I was ashamed. Ashamed because I knew people abroad – not just the ones I knew of – were watching this very appalling American political discourse as it unfolded. Ugh. I’m not naïve – I know issues that shouldn’t be politicized probably end up so everywhere else in the world. But I think the experience of being so physically removed from my DC life and getting to dissect the American electoral process from abroad made me idealize it a bit.
Anyway, now I’m back, fully reintegrated into my DC life, and preparing to take a one year assignment at the Center for Complex Operations at National Defense University. There, I’ll continue working on Phase 0 interagency theater security cooperation, most likely in the AFRICOM AoR for the next 12 months. I hope to continue writing and posting regularly, but one can never tell what surprises life has during times of transition.
On my About Me page, I alluded to the possibility of writing about my experience traveling in Africa – to add an entertaining counterweight to my more analytical rants and musings on the events unfolding on the continent. The following is actually a non-analytical rant/musing on my current case of writer’s block and my exile to the Beltway, which is clearly not on the African continent:
Lesley on Africa has been afflicted by a rather common ailment – writer’s block. Is my own lack of creativity to blame? No, but I’ll tell you who IS to blame. The Republic of South Sudan.
See, I set out to write an article about South Sudan’s first year of existence last week, but I was trying to avoid writing a litany of the fledgling nation’s failures – to add to many similar articles that came out this week. I think I’ve finally found my angle, but I wanted to emphasize that South Sudan has utterly failed… to stimulate my creativity this week. Inshallah whatever I eventually write will add value to the dialogue on South Sudan’s first year.
So instead of writing about a country, I’ve decided to post a few reflections from the point of view of an Africa specialist trapped in the Beltway for the summer. If you haven’t already, you may gather that I have a love/aggressive hate relationship with the Beltway. On one hand, DC is a highly intellectual, international city brimming with opportunity and access. On the other hand, it can be very insular and one can easily fall into the trap of assuming all knowledge can be found in DC or its immediate vicinity. It’s the latter that irks me.
On top of having writer’s block, I’ve also had a very introspective week – which is why I was reminded of this Beltway dichotomy at an Africa event I recently attended. The speaker was addressing a pretty controversial topic, but was very politic in their remarks and when it came to Q&A. Their remarks did not spark a heated debate, which should have been the case given the subject matter. Instead, it sounded like a pitch for maintaining the status quo of U.S. engagement in Africa – regardless of the inherent idiosyncrasies of our approach (security at the expense of democracy, for example), or any potential areas for improvement.
The whole affair reminded me of an Africa event I was tied to in another life. I didn’t actually have to brief anything (minions rarely do), but more senior people were discussing my project, which was proposing some new, innovative concepts. In my
relatively more youthful idealism, I was pretty psyched because I truly believed that if a bunch of really smart people got together to discuss a controversial topic, they would be self-critical and seek to improve upon current concepts. However, instead of seeking to improve upon the weaknesses of current concepts, the event was a venue to reaffirm that these concepts were the right course of action and needed no improvement. Well, what was the point of all that?
This all makes me wonder if we in the Beltway are doomed to reaffirm the status quo time and time again – that our Africa strategy is forward-leaning and balanced, and that Africans – all 1 billion of them - are warming to our approach. From what I gather when I do manage to escape the Beltway, such sentiments lack introspection – and more importantly, nuance. And I think there’s a danger that such sentiments could enshrine superficial engagement with the continent that obstructs the development of new engagement strategies.
On that very optimistic note, I’m off to bed. Also, if you don’t like this post, blame South Sudan.