What’s in a Presidential Visit?

A proposed visit by President Barrack Obama to some African countries has gotten a lot of people talking. The fact that he is coming so close to Kenya but not to Kenya has not escaped the keen eyes of Kenyans. Speculation is rife as to the reason why the so called ‘Kenyan son’ is not coming ‘home’.

It is on record that Obama visited the country some time in 2006. This was two years before his historic election to one of the most powerful offices in the world. He came in search of his roots as he had a Kenyan father.

Since his election, the ‘Kenyan son’ has never set foot in the country. Once when Michael Ranneberger was the US envoy to Kenya, there was talk of him coming. The reason given for his snubbing his ‘home’ was the slow pace of reform in the country. This was a period after the promulgation of the new constitution.

Now Obama is coming, or should I say is bringing the US presidency very close to home. He is scheduled to visit Tanzania. This has got some Kenyans wondering why the snub while others making a jest of it all wondering whether he became China’s president for us to care much. All this raises the question of the purpose of this visit.

In my humble opinion, it is a form through which US foreign policy is implemented. These visits are usually ‘granted’ to states that have policies that are congruent with the idealist pedestal that US foreign policy is predicated upon. Thus as one can reasonably conclude, if a state lacks these ideals, then no visit.

So why snub Kenya? To some the answer is only too obvious. On May 4th 2013 Kenyans elected ICC indictees to the office of the President and his deputy amid warning from western diplomats of ‘essential contact’ and ‘choices have consequences’. But one can ask why the US deals with other governments that continue to oppress their people while preaching the very ideals that are broken by these governments.

I think the answer can be found in two extremes. The first is US public opinion. This is a very strong component in American foreign policy with each leader striving not to cross the American public.It is however linked strongly to the historical capital of the nation since independence.

Since the country was founded by declaring independence from Britain in 1776, it has always considered its policies through moral imperatives. In fact one of the reasons that it employed the isolationist policy was the tendency to see their distance from Europe and being surrounded by two vast oceans through the divine lens rather than a geo-political fact. Thus through out its history, the people and consequently their opinion have been wired to think in terms of ideals as opposed to hard political realities.

The second extreme is the reality of the international political landscape. After the world war, the US started seeing things in a more realistic way. Implementing policies that consider men as good and that their goodness could be drawn from public conscience quickly met a world where calculations of power ran supreme. In a short time their were spheres of influence and thus a pseudo-balance of power mechanism between the capitalist and communist blocs.

To maintain such a balance they needed a policy that would stop-gap communist growth and influence. This was when George F. Kennan proposed the containment policy. For it to work, states that were hitherto capitalist or neutral could never have been allowed to end up in Soviet hands. This led the US administration to deal with people like Mobutu and even plan the assassination of Patrice Lumumba who was widely perceived to be a communist sympathizer in Washington.

All this was being done at a covert level. Any leaks in intelligence would mean a bad rating in the polls owing to public opinion.  If it happened it would be followed by measures set to placate the indignant response of the American public. Thus many of the operations were done secretly and outside their knowledge.

So what is the relevance of this all? I mean the Cold War has ended? What does this have to do with the US President visiting Tanzania? Bear with me, I am getting to that.

Indeed, the Cold War has ended but replaced with War on Terror. Like in the Cold War, the War on Terror requires allies indispensable for its success. The war is accentuated by the so called Bush Doctrine of pre-emptive strikes and focus on state sponsors of terrorism and failed state. East Africa has such a state in the name of Somalia.

So I see Obama as being in a dilemma.  He cannot come to Kenya owing to fear of unfavourable pressure, and I should add that he is not as brave as the British who invited President Kenyatta to the London Conference on Somali. But at the same time he cannot afford to ignore Nairobi in the ongoing fight against terror.

The solution to this would be to snub Nairobi publicly but deal with it privately. He has recognised the Government of Mr. Kenyatta, hasn’t he? In my view the fact that Obama is not coming to Kenya is irrelevant since it does not translate to any substantial benefit to Kenya’s interest.  I mean even Bashir enjoys the private relations with Washington doesn’t he?

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2 responses to “What’s in a Presidential Visit?

  1. What is in a presidency is that the President is the CEO of the nation and he influences foreign policy. Foreign policy is about national interest and Obama administration works with Bashir for America’s national interest and the same happens with Kenya. Him ignoring Nairobi is a sign of cautious Diplomacy to the Kenyan CEO Uhuru Kenyatta.

    • Mr. Clifford, thank you for the observation. I totally agree. What my argument aims at is the reality of the matters on the ground. President Obama may not be physically coming to Kenya – as that would upset his image in the court of American public opinion – but even he knows that he ostracises Nairobi at the peril of US’s strategic interests in East Africa.

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