WASHINGTON - President Barack Obama is gathering nearly 50 African heads of state in Washington for an unprecedented summit aimed in part at building his legacy on a continent where his commitment has been questioned.
But the backdrop for the conference that begins Monday underscores what has been a constant challenge to that effort. Even as Obama immerses himself in talks on regional security, democracy building and business investment in Africa, the world's attention - and much of his own - will be on an extraordinary array of urgent overseas crises.
Among them: Gaza clashes, Russia's provocations in Ukraine and mounting extremism in Iraq, to name just a few. An outbreak of the deadly Ebola virus in West Africa also threatens to cast a shadow over the summit, with leaders from at least two affected countries canceling plans to travel to Washington and the U.S. setting up medical screenings for other officials arriving from those nations.
"It's the nature of the world we live in today where there are multiple crises at any time," said Witney Schneidman, the former deputy assistant secretary of state for African affairs. "But that should not paralyze us from moving forward on key areas to advance our interests."
White House officials say the American interests in Africa are immense. The continent is home to some of the world's fastest growing economies and a rapidly expanding middle class. The U.S. is also competing for those consumers with China, which surpassed the United States in 2009 as Africa's largest trading partner.
"The importance of this for America needs to be understood," Obama said Friday. "Africa is growing, and you've got thriving markets and you've got entrepreneurs and extraordinary talent among the people there."
He added: "Africa also happens to be one of the continents where America is most popular, and people feel a real affinity for our way of life."
From the start of his presidency, Obama has faced sky-high expectations from African leaders and U.S. policymakers who hoped the son of a Kenyan would bump Africa up the White House list of foreign policy priorities.
Analysts say Obama's second term has brought about a more robust focus on Africa. The president made a three-country trip to the continent last summer and aides say he's likely to travel there again before the end of his second term.
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