For the first time since the Senior Leaders Seminar was created in 1999, participants in the Africa Center for Strategic Studies’ flagship program visited the U.S. Capitol on June 21, 2012, and exchanged views with a U.S. senator and senior staff members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
The trip to the heart of the U.S. elected-body of power was meant to increase participants’ understanding of the policymaking role of the U.S. Congress, as well as to allow an opportunity for help key lawmakers and staff to hear a variety of African views on U.S. policy.
Sen. Johnny Isakson of Georgia, ranking member on the Foreign Affairs Committee’s Subcommittee on African Affairs, met with approximately 70 military and civilian leaders from 40 African nations. Isakson pointed out that the United States currently faces significant budget challenges, resulting in nearly every government activity being viewed through a cost/benefit prism. However, “the benefits of partnering with Africa outweigh the cost,” he said. “So far, a democratic Africa is good for the U.S.” After brief remarks, Isakson responded to numerous questions before excusing himself to participate in a floor vote on an important farm bill.
As part of the two-hour visit, the African leaders also held talks with three veteran staffers who have been deeply involved in U.S.-Africa relations.
Michael V. Phelan, senior policy advisor on the Foreign Relations Committee for ranking member Sen. Richard Lugar of Indiana, provided an overview of the workings of the U.S. Senate. Phelan’s portfolio includes African affairs, Afghanistan, and post-conflict stabilization and reconstruction. He explained how the staffers who work on Capitol Hill play a key role in creating laws, putting together press conferences, and orchestrating committee hearings. They are also instrumental conducting research to help elected members make informed decisions.
Shannon Smith, senior staff member for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman, Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, added that work by the Senate professional staff is critical in helping the elected members of the Foreign Relations Committee have a comprehensive approach of each issue.
Lauren Ploch Blanchard spoke about the role of parliamentary research institutions like the Congressional Research Service (CRS), part of the Library of Congress, where she specializes in Africa issues. CRS provides nonpartisan analysis on African political, military and diplomatic affairs, and on U.S. policy in the region, to Members of Congress, congressional committees, and congressional staff, she said.
“I have many bosses, since we are non-partisan,” she noted. “We [at the CRS] try to be as objective as possible when we provide information to both sides of the aisle.”
Discussions with the African participants were conducted under the Africa Center’s strict policy of non-attribution to allow candid discussion. Topics include international aid and economic development, bilateral security assistance, and humanitarian crisis response.
“This has been very interesting,” said one participant at the end of the meeting. “Now I have a better understanding of what the U.S. Congress is, and how it works.”
The Senior Leaders Seminar opened on June 18, 2012. The two-week colloquium provided a forum for approximately 70 senior-level military officers and civilian officials from Africa, the United States, and Europe, as well as representatives from international and regional organizations, to review and analyze the evolving African security environment and to discuss strategies for addressing challenges and enhancing Africa’s security. The two-week seminar was scheduled to run June 18-29.