For most of this country’s existence, Africa has been the continent we could, if we chose to, ignore.
Not Europe, the historical root of most of our foreign entanglements. That began with our revolutionary breakup with Britain, and accelerated through the 20th Century’s two world wars.
Not, for the better part of a century, Asia. Commodore Perry recognized that reality when he entered Tokyo in the 1850s. In more recent decades, World War II, Korea, the rise of China as a world power and conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan have cemented our focus on that part of the world.
Not South America…at least certainly not since the Cuban revolution of 1959 and more recent political stirrings in Venezuela and other countries on that continent.
Compared with those, Africa had been the kind of distant, detached place America envisioned the whole world to be during the isolationist era of the 1920s. It was a continent where a few of us went because out consciences demanded it – a place of service to the less fortunate, of which there have been and continue to be many. The Peace Corps has always had a heavy presence in Africa.
That perception has changed, and Africa is becoming a continent requiring a substantial U.S. awareness. The change was first brought home to us last year when troops based at Fort Riley incorporated the concept of small-unit presences in Africa into their training and deployment schedules. That incorporation was not accidental; it was deliberate.
The message was underscored last fall when an American ambassador was killed in a terrorist attack on the embassy compound in Libya. And it was further underscored last week when terrorists seized a refinery in Algeria, a seizure eventually leading to the deaths of dozens of workers – including three Americans – who had been held as hostages. In the wake of that seizure, there were widespread reports that Al Qaida is ramping up its presence in Africa.
The dream of most Americans has always been to live in a nation protected by its bounding oceans from involvement in foreign entanglements, and left to pursue its own internal struggles toward a more perfect society. That dream has rarely, if ever, been fulfilled. Perhaps Africa will turn out not to be the latest detour on the route to fulfillment of that dream, but the evidence is beginning to suggest otherwise.