Africa does not generally dominate the global news agenda, but that is about to change over the next three months.
The US and two of its close allies in Africa are facing challenges that could potentially lead to catastrophe. In the horn of Africa, the US-backed leadership in Somalia, the Transitional Federal Government, has failed to establish control over more than a few parts of the capital, Mogadishu, and the airport and sea port. It clings to this toehold thanks to the presence of 6,000 African peace-keeping troops, which are so far fighting off the al Qa'eda-linked militants of al Shebab.
To the west, the countdown has begun for an independence referendum in southern Sudan on January 9. If this vote goes ahead, it is all but certain that the people of the south will vote for independence, thus slicing off a large part of Sudan's territory, including much of its oil wealth. If the referendum fails to go ahead - quite likely, given the huge difficulties of organising it - or is contested, then a flare-up of the war which disfigured southern Sudan for most of the latter half of the 20th century is highly likely. Given how heavily armed both sides are, the fighting would be even worse. The people of the south believe they have the backing of the Washington and the American people to create the first new state in Africa for 20 years. They should be a little cautious.
The two flashpoints are united by one common thread: the impossibility of Washington to protect its clients in places where it is cannot put boots on the ground. After the ignominious retreat of the US military from Somalia following a 1993 battle portrayed in the movie Black Hawk Down, Barack Obama cannot even think of sending troops back to Mogadishu. As for Sudan, the area is so vast and so remote that any sensible general would hesitate to deploy. It would be a gift to America's enemies, who would see it as Washington conspiring to lop off another oil-rich chunk of the Arab nation, following the near secession of Iraqi Kurdistan.
The only hope for Sudan is that some lessons can be learned from Somalia. The transitional government, under President Sharif Ahmed, was brought into Mogadishu from exile in Kenya after the Ethiopian army, with US support, removed the Islamic Courts Union, which appeared to be establishing some stable Islamist form of government. The transitional government is dismissed by its enemies as a bunch of corrupt puppets. Unable to control the territory or bring services to the people, it has only one achievement to its name: inspiring and giving cohesion to the Al Shebab fighters.
Already, the Shebab-controlled areas of Somalia are a training ground and global hub for jihadists, including those from countries with large Somali diasporas, such as the US, Canada, Britain, Italy and Sweden. Jonathan Evans, the director of Britain's security service, MI5, predicts that Shebab-controlled Somalia will take over from Pakistan as the main source of terrorist threat. One body of opinion holds that the original sin in this mess was Washington's decision to remove the Islamic Courts Union and not to engage with it. But the real issue now is how to stop the country from deteriorating further.
One suggestion is "constructive disengagement", a seductive diplomatic term for an arm's length involvement in a country which Washington clearly does not understand. It means: stop backing the transitional government; stop trying to build a government; negotiate aid deliveries with whoever is in power locally; use all of America's surveillance capacity to keep an eye on the place; and try to engage with clans who reject the Taliban-isation of Somalia under al Shebab.
Opponents from the American security complex say it could make a bad situation worse, empowering al Shebab to take over the two relatively stable parts of Somalia, Somaliland and Puntland. Politically, such a course would be poison for Mr Obama, who would open himself up to the charge that he handed the whole country over to terrorists. Washington is hedging its bets. The State Department has announced a new twin-track approach, involving closer relations with Puntland and Somaliland, which now appear as more realistic springboards for a counter-offensive against al Shebab than the government controlling a few blocks of the city of Mogadishu. But this is a holding operation: Mr Obama has no cards to play now.
The clear lesson is not to create another African puppet in southern Sudan which it cannot protect. This is proving hard, as there is a strong groundswell of support in America for the southern Sudanese. In America, the conflict is portrayed is simplistic terms - northern Muslims Arabs oppressing the Africans in the south, with President Omar Bashir, who is already facing charges of genocide in Darfur, cast as the evil genius. So the liberal interventionists, such as the actor George Clooney, will be satisfied with nothing less than an independent state. Hillary Clinton, the US Secretary of State, has already called on Khartoum to accept the "inevitable" secession of the south, despite the fears of the Arab League and the African Union.
But it is far from certain that the vote can take place. The referendum can hardly be held without a solution to the fate of Abyei, a contested area producing most of Sudan's oil, which has been promised its own referendum, though its borders and who can vote are still subject to dispute. As the tide of opinion in the south is moving in favour of secession, in the event of the vote being cancelled there will be pressure from the southern leader, Salva Kiir, to made a unilateral declaration of independence.
Independence, in this case, is more virtual than real. This is one of the least developed parts of the habitable globe which cannot survive without massive handouts of food aid. The weakness of the south provides scope for diplomatic pressure, while the desire of President Bashir to escape the charge of genocide provides scope for the US to provide some diplomatic carrots. The oil revenues could be divided in some way.
What is most important is to avoid the Somali precedent, where America's prestige is tied to the success of a leadership which manifestly cannot stand on his own two feet.