Johnnie Carson, President Obama's nominee for assistant secretary of State for African Affairs, has over 40 years of experience on the continent and has been called a "veteran", a "lifelong student" and a "gentleman" by Africa experts on both sides of the aisle.
"I've never heard of anybody who hates him, which is uncommon in Washington," said Todd Moss, who served as deputy assistant secretary for African Affairs from May 2007 to October 2008.
But talk to the Bush aides who crafted and guided the last administration's Africa policy -- a raft of aid packages for HIV/AIDS and malaria, anti-terrorism alliances and more than 100 official visits with sub-Saharan leaders -- and you hear a measure of apprehension in their voices as they hand off what is perhaps the 43rd president's greatest foreign policy accomplishment.
No one doubts that Carson is one of the most experienced Africa hands in government. During his 37 years in the Foreign Service, Carson, 66, has been an ambassador to Kenya, Uganda and Zimbabwe, held posts in Portugal, Botswana, Mozambique and Nigeria, and has worked in Foggy Bottom and on the Hill. More recently, he was vice president of National Defense University and is now the Africa adviser to the National Intelligence Council.
But some former Bush officials argue that Carson's four decades in the Foreign Service may have stunted his capacity -- or desire -- to push the envelope with ambitious new projects. Jendayi Frazer, assistant secretary of State for African Affairs from 2005 to 2008, said Carson will manage the bureau well and be positively received. But she was careful to add that he is a "traditional career foreign service officer."
"I'm not certain where policy innovation will come from," Frazer said. "I'm hopeful that he will take the necessary steps to ensure that Africa remains on the agenda."
President Bush took an intense interest in Africa, resulting in programs like the President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) and the President's Malaria Initiative. But those programs were launched in fatter times. In the midst of an economic downturn, extending expensive aid programs (not to mention pitching new ones) will be a tough sell in Congress. And with Obama grappling with two wars, a recession and health care and energy reform, Africa policy has sunk toward the bottom of his to-do list. (A State Department spokesman declined an interview request for Carson, pending his confirmation.)
The worry among observers and former aides is that Obama has tapped a career diplomat for a post that requires a noisemaker who can keep Africa policy on Washington's radar. Carson is handicapped by his lack of obvious allies in the executive branch. Former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was Frazer's mentor when the latter was a doctoral candidate at Stanford, and together they capitalized on former Bush's interest in Africa to push bold policy initiatives.
"Absolutely, my relationship with Condi Rice was crucial to getting around the system," Frazer said.
Carson's relationship with Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton is less clear. Although it's rare to interview more than one or two candidates for the position, Clinton decided to consider several other Africa experts after interviewing Carson for the job. And whereas the Rice-Frazer partnership was strengthened by shared goals and a strong personal history, the Obama team's org chart is more tangled. Relations between Carson's new boss (Clinton) and his old boss (U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice, under whom he served during the 1990s when she held the assistant secretary post) are said to be fractious, and that could complicate things if Rice decides to inject herself into Africa policy.
"Jendayi got resources not just for Africa but for the Africa bureau," said J. Peter Pham, the director of the Nelson Institute for International and Public Affairs at James Madison University. "Africa has to contend not only with overall belt-tightening but also an advocate who doesn't have the same political clout that it had before."
Assistant secretaries bring more to the table than budget acumen, of course. But Carson's testimony at his April 29 Senate confirmation hearing did not reassure his detractors that he brings fresh ideas to the post.
"In essence, his opening statement could have been given by any of his predecessors from the last 50 years," said Pham, who advised the McCain campaign on Africa policy. "Literally, this could have been given at a confirmation hearing in 1980, aside from a few time-sensitive remarks. That to me is a problem."
Carson won't be the only Clinton-era Africa veteran on the Obama team: Africa experts and former State Department officials said former Rep. Howard Wolpe, D-Mich., will be named Obama's special envoy to the troubled Great Lakes region of Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo, a post he also held under Clinton.
But for every Carson doubter, there's a bipartisan cavalcade of State Department veterans who vehemently reject any criticism of him as too much a company man.
"Nonsense," said George Moose, who served as assistant secretary under President Clinton. "He's not aggressive, and he's not disruptive, but he's not at all afraid to speak his mind and make strong arguments when he needs to. He's not a shrinking violet, and he's certainly not afraid to ruffle feathers."
Carson has shown he knows how to throw elbows as well: While at the National Defense University, he issued a scathing rebuke of Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni, once a darling of the democratic reform movement, for changing the East African nation's constitution to run for a third term.
Chester Crocker, who was President Reagan's assistant secretary for African Affairs, rejected the notion that Carson's four decades in government are anything but an asset.
"I think it's a choice of going for a really experienced veteran -- there's a level of literacy and familiarity with the issues and actors," Crocker said. "I'd rather have an adult behind the wheel than someone who thinks they have discovered the truth and everyone better get behind them."
Whatever misgivings former Bush officials have about Carson may have less to do with this particular nominee and more to do with a general concern that the new administration will toss out Bush's Africa policy with the bathwater.
"I was not politically active for either party, but having lived through the [Clinton] administration, which gave Africa a lot of lip service, [Bush] deserves a lot of credit for putting his money where his mouth his," said Moss. "It would be a real shame if, because people don't like his Iraq policy or the war on terror, the Africa pieces got lost."
Plenty of components of Bush's Africa policy -- from a post-9/11 emphasis on anti-terror alliances to expensive aid programs -- would be in danger of being lost no matter who is at the helm of the African Affairs bureau. In lean times when money for big-ticket projects is tight, Carson's intimate knowledge of the department and its foreign missions might be the best State can hope for: a veteran hand who can keep morale high and the Africa bureau chugging along.
"The name of the game is not trying to pretend that Africa is as important as China or the G-20, and that's OK," said Mauro De Lorenzo, a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute who focuses on development in Africa. "The name of the game is finding ways to insert a little bit of Africa into what the U.S. is doing in the world."
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