The Secretary of State ranks as the most important official, other than the President, in formulating US foreign policy. But assistant secretaries wield significant influence of their own in determining how the superpower deals with specific parts of the world — Africa, for instance.
Africa-focused analysts in Washington, along with political and business leaders, are thus anxiously awaiting President Donald Trump’s choice to head the State Department’s Africa Bureau. Established in 1958, the bureau, led by the assistant secretary, implements US policy towards each of the 48 sub-Saharan countries.
Insiders identify three individuals as the strongest candidates to succeed Ms Linda Thomas-Greenfield who served for the past three-and-a-half years in the Obama administration.
Dr J. Peter Pham, an Africa expert at a Washington think-tank, is rated by some speculators as the frontrunner for the job. Dr Pham is a Vietnamese immigrant and ordained Episcopal priest who noted in a January 19 email message that he has “always been a Republican.”
Dr Pham noted that he had advised two previous Republican presidential candidates — Mitt Romney and John McCain — on Africa issues.
He exhibits in-depth knowledge of African states. But while he has some diplomatic experience, Dr Pham has not held a high-level US government post and is viewed more as an intellectual than as a bureaucratic power-player.
Retired US Army Col Charles Snyder, said to also be a leading contender for the job, has been a top military training officer in Africa, a Central Intelligence Agency specialist on Africa and a senior figure in the State Department’s Africa Bureau during George W. Bush presidency.
BRING ABOUT PEACE
As deputy assistant secretary for African Affairs, Col Snyder worked to bring about the peace agreement that led to the separation of Sudan and South Sudan. Because of his extensive background in military and intelligence matters, many believe his selection would be taken as a signal that Mr Trump intends to take a hard-edged approach to Africa.
In that case, analysts believe he could place Col Snyder in the top Africa slot at the Pentagon while naming a career diplomat to the State Department’s post.
Dr Kate Almquist Knopf’s past positions in the fields of conflict mediation and development policy are cited as factors behind reported consideration of her as a candidate for the Africa job. She currently directs the Africa Centre for Strategic Studies, a Pentagon think- tank. Her appointment would counter criticisms concerning the male-dominated Trump policy-making team.
Dr Knopf, like Dr Pham and Col Snyder, is not African-American. And while officials would deny that racial identity is a factor in selecting someone for the Africa post, the choice of a black person carries symbolic weight, and three of the past four holders of the office have been African-Americans. The exception in that group, Mr Donald Yamamoto, served only a little more than four months during Mr Obama’s second term.
Dr Jendayi Frazer, an African-American who headed the bureau during Mr Bush’s second term (2005-2009), has a reputation for toughness that could appeal to Mr Trump despite her Republican politics. She is reported to have signed an open letter during last year’s campaign charging that Mr Trump would be unfit to serve as president.
“I am a Republican and I would rather the Republicans win, but more importantly I would rather my country not go down the fascist route,” she said in a past interview.
Mr Johnnie Carson, a former ambassador to Kenya, succeeded Dr Frazer following Mr Obama’s inauguration in 2009. A career foreign service officer, Ambassador Carson was usually careful to use diplomatic language in his public remarks.
But he generated controversy on the part of some leading Kenyan politicians — by indirectly warning in 2013 against the choice of Uhuru Kenyatta and William Ruto for president and deputy.
“Choices have consequences,” he told reporters, suggesting that the US would react negatively to the election of the two who were then under indictment by the International Criminal Court.
The selection of an assistant Secretary of State for Africa may not be made until next month.