Members of the U.S. World Cup soccer team recently paid a visit to the White House, where they were greeted by the impressive trio of President Barack Obama, Vice President Joe Biden and former President Bill Clinton. Goodwill was in the air -- on Saturday, the U.S. team will face the English in a match that is expected to draw one of the largest audiences in the history of televised sports
. The presidents, for their part, were especially enthusiastic about the team's footwear.
"I want to be on this team just for the shoes," Clinton said. "This is the only team that I've ever seen that had these cool shoes."
Obama concurred: "This is the best-dressed soccer team I've ever seen. Those are some sharp shoes."
Shoe envy notwithstanding, both commanders in chief had, by this time, forfeited the opportunity to attend the opening ceremonies of the World Cup games on Friday in Johannesburg, South Africa. Obama initially accepted the invitation but domestic dramas, including the BP oil spill, have kept him grounded on U.S. soil for the time being
. (Clinton will reportedly catch some of the later games). Instead, Obama announced that Vice President Biden would be "live" on the scene for the opening ceremony. To which Biden cracked, "It was a painful assignment."
Biden's presence at the World Cup is typical veep stuff: earlier this year he attended the opening ceremonies of the Olympic Games
in Vancouver. This kind of soft diplomacy -- on display at ceremonies, games, backyard barbecues
-- is par for the course for the second in command. But Biden's trip to Africa, largely underreported, has also marked a return to the hard stuff for the man who was once chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
Before heading to South Africa, Biden stopped in Egypt and Kenya to meet with regional heads of state. These visits were more than photo ops to demonstrate U.S. support for President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt and President Mwai Kibaki of Kenya. Instead, Biden went into the meetings with an agenda that is in many ways a holdover from his time tackling foreign affairs: to try to gather regional support to stabilize war-torn Somalia
, and to re-energize dialogue between North and South Sudan to prevent a return to Africa's longest-running war
On Sudan, in particular, Biden has long been vocal. In 2007, when he was still a candidate for president, Biden called for the use of military force
to secure peace in the Darfur region of the country. Then-Senator Obama was also engaged on the issue
, calling for international action to end the violence in the region. Since being elected, however, Obama has come under fire for his handling of Sudan. In particular, the White House has found itself defending Special Envoy Scott Gration, who announced during a trip to the region in July 2009 that the genocide in Darfur had ended
Gration's controversial actions in the intervening months
-- including a strategy of "gold stars and cookies" engagement
with President Omar al-Bashir of Sudan, who is wanted by the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity -- have reportedly caused deep rifts inside the White House
, with Gration on one side and United Nations Ambassador Susan Rice, who favors a much more aggressive approach, on the other. This week Rice had her hands full with an Iran sanctions package
, and it was Gration who accompanied Biden on his travels to Africa.
In January 2011, as part of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement
signed in 2005, Sudan will face a national referendum to determine whether the South will withdraw from its union with the North. There is great concern that any possible split will be accompanied by a return to war between the two sides. In Egypt on Tuesday, Biden announced that he had discussed both Somalia and Sudan with Mubarak -- the Egyptian government has been particularly active in mediating the conflict in Sudan. In Kenya on Wednesday, Biden met with the president of the semi-autonomous region of southern Sudan, Salva Kiir
, and President Kibaki of Kenya to discuss Sudan's January referendum. On Thursday, he took up the matter again with former President Thabo Mbeki of South Africa. All this action would indicate that securing Sudanese stability in the coming months might be a real priority for the Obama administration.
But the true test of how serious the White House is about securing the peace in both Somalia and Sudan will be when Biden returns from his African travels. Whether he uses his position to push the issues into the Oval Office or shelves them along with his World Cup memorabilia will make a world of difference to those Somalians and Sudanese trying to determine what the next five months hold: a White House taking aggressive steps forward or still staring at the ground, with no sharp footwear in sight.