BOOK REVIEW: THE MIND OF THE AFRICAN STRONGMAN BY AMBASSADOR HERMAN “HANK” COHEN
by Harry C. Blaney III
Africa has always been one of the most difficult continents to fully understand and to carry out diplomacy with any lasting effect. It is also the place where we have needed to be engaged with out best people and with effective assistance programs that reached the general population and not squandered or wasted especially on wars and civil strife.
This book “The Mind of the African Strongman: Conversations with Dictators, Statesmen, and Father Figures” (New Academia Publishing, 2015, paperback), is filed with person-to-person meetings and dialogues of the key leaders of Africa over decades and provides Ambassador Cohen’s wise observations of their views, weaknesses, and strengths. In the process the reader gets an insight of the many difficulties of achieving prosperity for the people and also the many barriers to development and real democracy.
Not speared in this book is the many conflicts between African states and internal conflicts that caused so much suffering like the civil war between Liberia’s two strongmen Charles Taylor and Samuel Doe, which brought great carnage and deaths to the people of that nation. And as Cohen noted “Liberia was totally destroyed.”
Ambassador Cohen knows better than just about anyone of his generation and beyond the challenges and pitfalls of dealing with the wide variety of conditions, forces and wide range of leaders of African nations especially in their post-colonial era. In this book he sets forth as good a look at the leaders that shaped or misshaped that contentment in this key post-colonial period.
The books chapters are like a short history of African leadership from a personal perspective of a U.S. diplomat who was engaged intensively with these leaders and the problems of that period. So we gain an insight on the strengths and weaknesses and difficulties covering such countries as Senegal, Cote d’Ivoire, Gabon, Kenya, Zimbabwe, Zambia, Congo, Zaire, Nigeria, Libya, Somalia, Angola Liberia, and not least South Africa. In each case and in their own chapters these countries’ first leaders are portrayed with incisive insight and their inner personalities are given some light.
Africa has a long history of upheavals, conflicts and abject poverty, the hope was that progress could be made by independence. That promise however was moved forward in some cases and sadly in others was held back by a multiplicity of problems and poor leadership and corruption.
In Cohen’s summing up chapter he says “The African leaders portrayed in this volume were typical of their generation. Their outlooks were somewhat contradictory. They rejected colonial-era institutions, yet they adopted some colonial-era socioeconomic theories.” ”He adds: “The newly independent African nations of the early 1960s rejected Western multiparty democracy and all the trappings of open societies. He notes they also used the African “tradition of consensus building, but one party sates.
On the economic side Cohen notes that many leaders had an economic outlook of “African socialism” taken from the UK and French socialist parties they knew. The result were often corruption, diversion of resources away from priority areas like health and education and toward maintaining the one party state authoritarian rule and their constituencies. The consequence was “A vicious cycle….that caused most African countries to suffer from negative growth for over two decades.” He notes that in the 1980s external efforts to reform and help African countries “succeeded over a decade in reversing economic decline in most of the countries.”
He argues that with a new generation of leaders, there was more demand for freedom and often it resulted in less authoritarian rule along with the rise of independent media, and rise of some opposition parties and some private enterprise. Looking at 2015 Cohen notes that Africa was making progress on political and economic fronts. But he holds that in some countries the process was far from full democracy.
In this last chapter Cohen makes an argument for the need for democracy as a means of stability, growth and fairness and the best leaders are those that face the next election and thus do not fear so much for “day-to-day security.”
Cohen addresses also the use by early (and now recent) leaders of “illegitimate surrogate wars. Here I think is one of the key points of criticism of the African political and security landscape and one of the causes of great poverty and deprivation. He makes the point that the African Union will expel any government that comes to power through a military coup, but the AF “continues to ignore the illegitimate surrogate wars that are so devastating to life and property.”
Cohen ends with the hope for the development of good leaders that understand the needs of their people and are modern in their outlook on technology, listen to their people, and wake up in the morning determined to do good. He points to South Africa as a possible modal for other African countries.
American policy he notes is taking a positive attitude towards developments in Africa. But he seems to think we have taken too light a hand and avoided “blunt talk,” letting the World Bank and IMF do the hard words. He ends by writing that “President Obama appears more inclined that his predecessors toward “tough love” with respect to Africa.” He hopes President Obama will talk more openly about corruption and human rights abuses. He argues he can get away with a harder line and urge a move towards good governance. He worries also about growing unemployed youth becoming “explosive.” Amb. Cohen says there are grounds for some optimism in Africa “in the second decade of the twenty-first century.
This book, for those interested in the recent history of Africa and its many problems and the role and impact of it’s early leadership and what inheritance they gave to Africa, will make for exciting and insightful reading and a lot of thought about the landscape of Africa today.
We welcome your comments!
The Mind of the African Strongman: Conversations with Dictators, Statesmen, and Father Figures” (New Academia Publishing, Washington DC, 2015, paperback. available from Amazon
Washington DC, 2015, paperback. We welcome your comments!
By: Harry C. Blaney III
There are too few moments in our new century when we can say without much doubt that we have achieved a historic change of trajectory and have hope at last to move from mutual confrontation towards mutual dialogue and even cooperation. The decision of President Obama to open that dialogue, to start the process of establishing diplomatic relations, likely taking Cuba off of the list of “terrorist states”, and not least the one-on-one meeting between President Raul Castro and President Barack Obama at the Summit of the Americas in Panama.
Opening the front page of the Sunday New York Times and seeing Obama and Castro sitting side by side and another shaking hands, for someone who remembers well and vividly the period of the Cuban Missile crisis, living through the long history of mutual isolation and mistrust and even conflict, gave a sense of a kind of new dawning from a dark period that neither side should be proud of.
Obama’s act has also transformed our relations not only with Cuba but also Latin America; who have restored largely their own relations and criticized America for lagging in doing what was clearly wise in reaching out for some measure of starting what will be a long process of rapprochement and hopefully a more democratic Cuba in time.
President Obama said that clearly “there will still be problems to overcome, but he was optimistic that we will continue to make progress and that this can indeed be a turning point.” Castro also made jesters that indicated this was a path he was willing to go down. However, he most likely hopes to obtain more than what is possible now, as hard bargaining lies ahead.
There were a few moments of regressive behavior by some of the Cuban delegation at the Panama conference. This behavior indicated that in the Cuban government, those who wish to show the authoritarian side of the regime and are still clearly not accustomed to the rules and ways of public discourse and democratic dissent still exist. But, I think that was a sign of the last gasps of a weak and regressive and failing regime that is the past and not the future.
There is still a long road to full rapprochement, full diplomatic relations and setting the guidelines for this new relationship. Not least, is the continued authoritarian rule in Cuba on one side, and the opposition by the anti-Castro groups and far right types here in America on the other. There will be many difficulties in this process but I think with time, and some acknowledgment by both sides that a “new day” is better than the “old animosities,” Cuba will find its own democratic footing. With this, America will leave behind its old and unsuccessful strategy of isolating Cuba and itself and gain by the new openness.
If we can talk with Putin, and can talk to China, and talk with Iran, we can talk with Cuba. In my earlier days, America wisely decided by both Republican and Democratic presidents that we could and should talk to a hostile and aggressive Soviet Union and achieve thereby significant cuts in nuclear weapons via treaties, establish a “hot line,” to avoid misunderstandings, deal with a variety of arms control agreements, have military to military contacts, and conduct cultural exchanges. Thus, we certainly can find ways of cooperating with a nation just 90 miles south, where the people also seek reconciliation. Our efforts at negotiations paid off for both sides in the end. There was no real “hot war” and frankly the West prevailed via its diplomacy and wise policies; and nations were freed from the control of a failed dictatorship.
President Obama, in these last two years of his presidency, without the restrictions of narrow politics, seems to act on his best values and instincts, helping shape a world if at all possible towards a more “soft landing” and enhanced security. Although it could mean disturbing our “Know Nothing” far right war hawk Republicans, he is taking chances to shape a safer and more prosperous and perhaps fairer world.
We welcome your comments!
A version of this essay was also carried at the London School of Economics and Political Science Web Blog. Visit the Link Here: http://bit.ly/1yXztYX
By: Harry C. Blaney III
The harsh realities of the defeat of the Ukrainian forces at Debaltseve and the implications of this debacle highlight two realities. One is that Putin never intended anything but deception and aggression, and the West knew it capitulated to overwhelming force of arms. The second reality is what now needs to be done? On this, there is some disagreement. The Europeans seem content with the results; they did not have to do anything to help the Ukrainians, the Ukrainian government is in a state of disarray, and now the question is whether Europe, and perhaps America, can marshal the will, resources, or the moral inclination to save what remains as a result of their inaction and indifference.
Within the NATO alliance, or what is left of it now, there are a range of differences. Some want to go to back to the “normal-normal,” reduce economic sanctions, increase trade with Russia and pretend nothing has happened as Putin incorporates Ukraine into his own cruel dictatorship and forever deny Ukraine the opportunity to be part of a democratic Europe. The hope of this view is that Putin will forever be content with 46 million more souls under his power and no more desire to test the West as he has done with his armies, planes flying to NATO countries boundaries, and his subs around the world. There is some “real politics” to this position; an acknowledgment that the West is at a military disadvantage in this geographic space, most due to the massive cutting back on defense spending, and a loss of a sense of a united and strong Europe by those who do not remember or would like to forget, like Merkel, WW II and its lessons.
The other school frankly is also in some disarray. That school of strategy recognizes the debacle for what it is and argues for a robust response, mostly by strengthened sanctions and added economic assistance for Ukraine, and for a few provisions of arms. There is a real fear that the Baltic States are the next objective of Putin; mostly because they are easy targets with their Russian minorities, and there is an ease of destabilizing tactics by Russian special forces and pressure despite being members of NATO.
What is now clear is that Putin and his mercenary separatist forces violated the latest Minsk cease-fire agreement, and a strong Western reaction will be needed. However, there is likely to be a messy argument about what these reactions should be if anything. With the Europeans in some disarray, the allies are looking to the United States to see our reaction. So far we have gotten words but no action. Likely, there are urgent quiet talks about next steps among Merkel, Hollande and perhaps even the so far immobilized Prime Minister Cameron who seems to disappear under the covers on this other than his empty mindless words.
For America and for Europe the easiest and least “aggressive” option would be a massive economic assistance to Ukraine with lots of strings attached to guard against corruption and incompetency. But most serious strategic analysts believe that providing arms and training should be key part of a new and bolder approach to save what remains of Ukraine and provide some hope for its people for a democratic future. Frankly, this looks and feels like closing the door after the horses have left, but better late than never.
The question then becomes for decision-makers whether to “save” a dismembered Ukraine or let it all fall into Putin’s grip without any further effort. This option has its own implications and risks, which may fall in Putin’s assessment that the West is but a “Potemkin village” empty of will, enfeebled by loss of vision, moral courage, and prime for the pickings.
In sum, there are a number of things we can do to help Ukraine even in its dire straits to survive. I do not agree with the implied assumption of some that we should abandon Ukraine, some 46 million people who longingly want to be part of an open democratic West, to the cruel hands of Putin. President Obama rightly tried to engage Putin with his “re-set button.” But Putin had other less benign objectives.
But the blame game does not get us to a more constructive relationship. It will require a frank acknowledgment that we seem to be dealing with a Putin that is not willing to either reach out cooperatively with the West, nor is willing to tell the truth in his dealing with the West. That does require a deep rethink of our strategy, short term and long-term.
In this sad situation the real losers are not the West, but rather the Russian people. Yet we must not give up on our strategic key long-term goal to help Russia be part of a responsible international community and an open society. For the present moment, Russian hopes are doomed to a dark cold future and real decline, not rise in Russian influence, prosperity, and engagement in global problem solving if Putin continues his aggressive and authoritarian ways. This is sad for all sides. We also need to look after our allies and their fears and concerns.
We welcome your comments!
by Harry C. Blaney III
The Ukrainian revolution has now turned into a global crisis of Cold War proportions. Now is the time for caution, steadiness and resolution. If taken off course, the outcome could be a disaster for all sides, not least for the Ukrainian people. Wrong moves by Putin, the new Ukrainian government, European leaders, and America could turn a serious confrontation into a catastrophe for all. There is also the danger of doing nothing. Recent events in the Crimea and Putin’s statements indicate a radical and dangerous series of actions including his precipitous military intervention and veiled, and not so veiled, threats against all of the Ukraine. Continue reading
More and more reports are coming out of Moscow that President V. Putin is intent on a salami slicing process of deep repression and authoritarian Soviet style rule. His actions have included repression against NGOs in Russia that take money from abroad and those that don’t, the passing of legislation that limits freedom of expression, including the protests against them, criticism of the Kremlin, and the clamping down on freedom of the press. The goal is a top down government from the Kremlin.
In the realm of foreign affairs the probation of adoption by American families of orphans, along with indications that Putin is perhaps in an angry mood toward America and the West, seems to be pursuing a series of policies that are at cross purposes with those of the U.S. and of other Western democracies.
Now, news comes out that further legislation aimed at cutting the ties of Russians with the outside world are in the process. These may include a ban on Russian officials having connections abroad, such as wives and children living or being educated outside of Russia and the former Soviet Union. Putin has also closed down local broadcasting by VOA in Russia. Corruption is endemic and tolerated especially if it is by Putin’s favorites.
Beyond these moves is a decidedly strong trend towards the kind of extreme xenophobia and the suppression of anything that smacks of “Western” or the culture of and civic support for real “democracy.”
There seems at the same time, a trend by Putin, to increase defense/military spending at the expense of the funding of domestic needs like health care, which is already appalling. Also, Putin has instituted his stronger control over the regional governments at the expense of local autonomy.
In the background, there is a growing resentment by the middle class of Putin’s policies and a desire for a more open society. In the end, it will be the citizens of Russia that will likely move the regime or rid it of its authoritarian overlay. Meanwhile, this increasingly corrosive overlay of society is accompanied by public cynicism or even support. There are signs of a more open debate of resentment and opposition to the authoritarian and corrupt elements. My guess is that this desire for a modern and open society will in the end carry the day, but at a very high cost to the Russian people who have waited centuries for some sense of dignity and real civil rights.
The question for America and its allies is what can be done, if anything, to persuade Vladimir Putin and not least the Russian people that both repression at home and belligerence abroad is not in their own interests? The Russian Federation now faces not only years of possible reaction, but also possible loss of inward investment, and a possible loss of its main revenue if either oil or gas prices fall or non-Russian supplies are supplanted from other regions.
The first thing that should not be done is to overreact ourselves mindlessly and preemptively act in ways that would only reinforce Putin’s obsessions and other right wing nationalists and play into their hands in creating an isolated and besieged Russia. This would give “rational” to the Kremlin to adapt authoritarian acts to “defend” its sovereignty and “Security” interests.
Those in America who wish to isolate Russia and make them a forever “enemy” and recreate a new “Cold War” are as much a danger to wise policy and the integration of Russia into the community of responsible nations. These “neocom” right wing “war hawks” wanted a mindless war with Iraq, they wanted us to confront China rather than engage them and push the “inevitable” coming conflict with China, and now they want to do the same with Russia.
What is needed instead is a wise long-term strategy of encouraging cooperation and confidence of the Russian people and also, especially of the growing better educated elite and middle class to recognize that Putin trajectory means only greater poverty of its people, less growth in modern technology and knowledge, and will destine Russia forever to be backward and solitary.
Our first step must be to once again reassert to the Russian people that we desire partnership and collaboration for the benefit of both our nations and to continue our “reset” dialogue with Russian leaders even when it seems almost hopeless to persuade them of its efficacy to their own interests. We need to devise a comprehensive agenda of useful initiatives and to hold out its benefits and break down the walls of communication between our society and theirs – even over the heads of the current regime if necessary.
Obama will be visiting Russia in the fall for a G-20 meeting and before that meeting there needs to be a major focused effort to engage in the kind of diplomacy, which reconnects our two nations and emphasizes those areas of mutual interest. Also, there should be an emphasis on a “full court press” of public diplomacy and the use of what many call “third tract” “back door” and a quiet effort to reach Russian citizens directly with the theme that America is not their enemy, but rather that together we can have the kind of cooperation that respects Russian’s real interests. The issues to be addressed early on in a quiet way include missile defense in Europe, Iran’s nuclear weapons, Syria, North Korea, our exit from Afghanistan, trade opportunities, investment and above all nuclear weapons and non-proliferation. That short list illustrates the still importance of the reasons behind the original “reset.” Secretary Kerry and President Obama now need to put enough attention and energy into this necessarily long-term strategy, which for a host of reasons is of the greatest importance to global security for everyone.
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The outcome of the recent Summit of the Americas was a total embarrassment for the United States – and not just because of the misconduct of the Secret Service detail. Our Cuba policy was roundly condemned by virtually all other governments and it was made clear that if we stick to barring Cuban attendance, there would be no more Summits, for the other governments would not participate.
And why the U.S. refusal to sit with Cuba? Because, we say, it is not a democracy. No, but it is moving in the right direction. At the urging of the Catholic Church, Cuba has freed most of its political prisoners, and also has opened up to the private cultivation of land and to more and more small private enterprises. Surely we could encourage movement in that direction more effectively by engaging and resuming dialogue, rather than by sitting on the sidelines and in effect saying that only when they have a perfect democracy will we talk to them.
Further, the Cubans note that our conditions for dialogue continue to change. For years, we assured them that if they would but give up their ties of dependency on our principal adversary, the Soviet Union, and stop their efforts to overthrow other governments in this hemisphere, then we could begin to engage and enter into a constructive dialogue. By the early-1990s, the Cold War was over, the Soviet Union had become the Russian Federation, and Cuba had officially renounced any intentions overthrowing other hemispheric governments. Rather, they said, it was their intention to live in peace with all. And so have they done.
In other words, our conditions had been met. And so did we then improve relations and begin that constructive dialogue? No, quite the contrary. The U.S. then took new measures against Cuba in the form of the Cuban Democracy Act of 1992, and with even greater hostility in 1996 with the Helms-Burton Act. The purpose of the latter was clear as Senator Helms vowed that with its passage we could now say “adios, Fidel.”
Well, not quite.
Worst of all, of course, was the administration of George W. Bush, whose objective, quite openly, was to bring about the end of the Castro government. But he did not succeed either. Raul Castro replaced Fidel, yes, but the Revolution remained intact.
Meanwhile, all other governments of the hemisphere did began to engage with Cuba, until it has today reached the point at which only the United States does not have diplomatic and trade relations with Cuba. Ironically, we are now the ones who are, at least in this sense, isolated- and we will remain isolated so long as we hold to this outdated and utterly sterile policy of refusing to move toward a more normal relationship with Cuba. As some have put it, “It is a self-inflicted wound.”
As indicated at the Summit, the time has long passed for the United States to move toward constructive dialogue and engagement with the Cuban people. Our policy of regime change has not worked, and, instead, is utterly counterproductive. If we keep it up much longer, the United States may find itself in Cuba’s place as the one country isolated from the rest of the Western Hemisphere.
By Wayne Smith.