In the 1990s, the Clinton administration led the international community in pursuit of a grand vision of reforming African countries into modern free-market democracies. That vision, however, was a poor match for the reality of conflict and stagnation on the ground. U.S. resources fell short of the rhetoric, and the policy yielded few results.

The next U.S. administration should acknowledge that immediate transformation of the continent is impossible. It should work first to create a better environment by providing debt relief, streamlining conflicting and unfunded financial-community mandates, concentrating assistance on stable countries, and assessing the negative impacts of single-interest NGOs. Africa will be helped most by a narrower U.S. policy focused on realistic goals.