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Hillary’s Trip to Africa: Not Just about “Clinton The Diplomat”

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Hillary’s Trip to Africa: Not Just about “Clinton The Diplomat”

Posted by Maggie Fick on August 17, 2009

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton ended her whirlwind and event-packed—yet still substantive—tour of Africa on Friday in Cape Verde, an island nation off the coast of West Africa. As Enough noted over the course of her trip, Secretary Clinton did an outstanding job outlining clear priorities for U.S. engagement on the continent, but she did not stop there. Secretary Clinton took the debate beyond the typical diplomatic rhetoric expected of a U.S. Secretary of State and moved head on into addressing the most challenging problems facing Africa today. She did not shy away from complex issues such as the scourge of sexual violence in eastern Congo or the imperatives of combating corruption, addressing root causes of violence, ending impunity, and promoting justice in countries such as Kenya and Sudan. Furthermore, Secretary Clinton made specific pledges of U.S. support, including $17 million to combat sexual violence in Congo. And finally, Secretary Clinton made a concerted effort to draw attention to the U.S. priority of women’s empowerment in Africa—an issue that has long been important to the secretary, from her days as First Lady, senator, and as a U.S. presidential candidate.

I mention all of these accomplishments because I think they stand in contrast to the argument proposed by the New York Times’ East Africa bureau chief Jeffrey Gettleman in his article in the Times’ Week in Review section yesterday. Gettleman, who covered Secretary Clinton’s entire trip for the paper, provides consistently hard-hitting and in-depth coverage of Africa’s most urgent issues. On the eve of Secretary Clinton’s trip, Gettleman’s article on the disturbing trend of male rape in eastern Congo shed  light on a sensitive issue that has received essentially no attention from the media, despite the growing prevalence of rape of men and boys in the recent Congolese military-led, United Nations-backed offensive against the FDLR militia in eastern Congo. This sort of outstanding coverage is why I was surprised that Gettleman’s piece yesterday missed the mark; Gettleman claimed that Clinton’s trip was more about Clinton The Diplomat, “a celebrity in her own right,” and “her emerging style as secretary of state.”

I disagree. Sure, Clinton The Diplomat was on center stage during her 11 days in Africa. To her credit, Clinton performed well—as I noted above, she delved deftly into complex issues, stayed poised and on message (the one blip in Kinshasa does not deserve another mention, given that the New York Post and other such sterling publications have already blown it well out of proportion), and made it clear that women’s empowerment will never slip below the radar on her watch. If Africa was a coming out party of sorts to introduce Secretary Clinton’s distinctive style as the top American diplomat, Clinton came out in style indeed.

But for Secretary Clinton herself, it seemed her trip to Africa was about the issues, not just about her. This was evident throughout the trip, as she attended meeting after meeting with senior African officials, convened numerous town halls and roundtable discussions, and spoke to everyday people from Congo to Angola about the issues that matter in their lives. Secretary Clinton does not have a superficial or self-motivated interest in Africa. She shows that she cares in the way she speaks about the need for accountability in Kenya, for an end to impunity in eastern Congo, and for women’s rights throughout the continent.

I was not traveling with the secretary as Gettleman was, and I don’t doubt that Clinton and her entourage stayed in “big-time hotels” and were often removed from the realities of life for everyday Africans. At the same time, I sensed that Clinton’s interest in meeting with displaced people in eastern Congo and women leaders in South Africa was genuine, even if she did not spend the night in an internally displaced persons camp.

What bothered me most about Gettleman’s final take on Clinton’s trip was that it relied on the notion that Americans don’t care about Africa. Gettleman said that even though it appeared that Clinton actually does care about the details of Liberia’s transition to democracy or the crisis in Congo, “Africa isn’t so interesting to most Americans.” Instead, he writes, “Hillary Clinton still is.” Today, the United States and Africa are growing more interconnected by the day. Americans are taking an interest in what is going on in Africa, partially because they have more personal connections to the continent. Anecdotally, I find confirmation of this all the time. On a recent flight to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, I was seated on one side next to a couple from Kentucky who were traveling to Addis to adopt a baby and on the other side next to a couple born in Ethiopia and living with their children in San Francisco. In addition, the growing citizens’ movement in the U.S. against genocide and crimes against humanity is widening and deepening more all the time—from students in Kansas organizing for Darfur to a Capitol Hill lobby day that drew close to 2,000 activists from around the United States who are concerned about the ongoing terror by the Lord’s Resistance Army in Central Africa.

It is selling Americans short to say that Africa doesn’t matter, and it is unfair to Secretary Clinton to say she was using Africa as a platform to set her own diplomatic tone. I may have to eat my words if Secretary Clinton does not follow up on the promises she made during her historic trip. But for now, I think it’s worth being optimistic that Secretary Clinton and her boss are serious about ending the suffering of millions of people in Congo and Sudan—after all, American citizens are serious about it, too.