Quick, What’s AFRICOM?

Our mainstream press is dropping the ball on a big international story.

A few weeks back, we commented on the further shrinking, or outright abandonment, of American news bureaus around the world, and lamented the effect that this will have on foreign news coverage in the United States, which is already pretty paltry.

Case in point is a debate over the American military’s presence in Africa that has hardly received word one in the American press, despite its critical importance. The issue is the new American combat command, AFRICOM — announced in early February — which will oversee military, humanitarian, and good governance programs on the continent.

For a peek at how the news is being received in the domestic press in Africa, we look to today’s edition of South Africa’s Mail & Guardian newspaper, where Virginia Tilley writes that the announcement of AFRICOM “suggests that more insistent American demands for military and intelligence cooperation will soon be heard in more African capitals,” and that “the Bush administration’s agenda offers little but mounting expense and new dangers for African security. The urgent question for South Africa is not how to join that war, but how to help protect Africa from it.”

The obvious problems with Tilley’s overly simplistic and alarmist analysis aside, the piece was remarkable in that if chanced upon by an American news consumer, it would likely come as, well, news. And that’s a problem. As we noted earlier, the U.S. military is extremely active in Africa, mostly providing medical and infrastructure support, and the fact that we are stepping up our commitment to the continent is a big deal, for a variety of reasons.

Despite this, stories about the new AFRICOM command have been completely absent from the mainstream American press. While ignored at home, (the only references we could find came from brief articles in the Toledo Blade and the Florida’s Sun Sentinel in late February), even the Brits are discussing AFRICOM. In early February, the Guardian’s Simon Tisdale wrote that “Africom marks the official arrival of America’s ‘global war on terror’ on the African continent. It is a wonder it took so long.”

While that passage alone, like Tilley’s piece, ignore the fact that AFRICOM is being set up as primarily a humanitarian operation, with serious — and necessary — anti-terrorism military programs in order to counter the spread of radical Islam on the continent, Tisdale does end up offering a thoughtful take on the program.

Beyond the two pieces in domestic newspapers mentioned above, the only other place with serious readership we could find a mention of AFRICOM was in the liberal TomPaine.com, which ran an alarmist piece today by Conn Hallinan, which approaches the absurd: “Behind the rhetoric of the ‘war on terrorism,’” he writes, “the Bush administration has a long-term strategy for Africa that turns butter into guns.”

Like Tilley’s piece, Hallinan is completely missing the point. We only wish that we didn’t have to argue with niche Web sites and foreign newspapers about this. It’s a debate that should be playing out in our mainstream press.

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Paul McLeary is senior editor of Defense Technology International magazine, and is a former CJR staffer.