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Rating America's Africa Agenda

Does the Bush Administration pass or fail its course on African politics?

July 9, 2003

Does the Bush Administration pass or fail its course on African politics?

The speech President Bush presented to the U.S.–Africa Business Summit in June 2003, in which he discussed his first trip to Africa, was a good step in, some say, the right direction. However, both in Africa and the United States, more questions abound over Bush's ulterior motives.

South Africa's Business Day (Johannesburg) called the President's trip an "Oil Safari." It is true that Africa is growing in importance as a U.S. supplier of oil.

Yet, to view the President's interest as purely fueled by energy interests is an oversimplification.

In the United States, the cynical viewpoint holds that Mr. Bush is hoping to attract African-American votes by making a few quick pit-stops. An astute politician, Mr. Bush knows that one trip to Africa will not earn him many votes from this traditionally Democratic constituency.

In an attempt to gauge the pulse of how America is engaging with Africa, here is a quick scorecard.

In his speech to the U.S.-Africa Business Summit, Mr. Bush pledged $100 million over 15 months to fight terrorism in Africa. Like other Bush aid announcements, this one falls short of what is needed to do a thorough job.

From Kenya to Malawi, al Qaeda is persistently recruiting and plotting murder. Northeastern countries Sudan and Somalia offer perfect hiding places. So far, the Bush Administration has concentrated the bulk of its counter-terrorism efforts in Afghanistan (good) and in Iraq (bad — there's little proof Saddam was in league with al Qaeda).

West African leaders, European leaders, UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, are all pressuring the United States to play a more constructive role in restoring peace to Liberia. French peacekeepers are in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Cote d'Ivoire — while British peacekeepers are in Sierra Leone.

The international community is looking to the United States to help this country settled by former American slaves in 1847.

To his credit, President Bush called for Liberian President Charles Taylor (who is currently under indictment for war crimes) to step down — and under pressure the leader complied in August 2003. He has also declared that he is "determined to help the people of Liberia find the path to peace."

But while a U.S. military team has arrived in Monrovia to assess humanitarian needs, the United States is still waiting to assess the amount of U.S. troops necessary to join the Nigerian force. The extent to which the United States will be involved in the coming weeks has yet to be determined.

If the U.S. argues that it is stretched too thin to send 2,000 peacekeepers to Liberia — it already has 10,000 troops in Afghanistan and 150,000 in Iraq — it sends a signal to Africans that the United States really doesn't care about their problems.

The Bush Administration is not doing much to halt environmental degradation in Africa. Widespread drought is one factor contributing to famine in Africa. Other factors include large-scale poverty, corruption and too many wars.

The U.S. response is to feed the starving — and help U.S. farmers — through massive food aid. This is very generous, although some African countries feel unduly pressured to accept genetically modified food.

In the meantime, not enough is being done to address the environmental roots of food shortages in Africa.

First the good news: U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell recently labeled Zimbabwe’s President Robert Mugabe a "tyrant." He also criticized the country's worsening human rights record and pattern of misrule that is ruining it.

Now the bad news: Mr. Powell's views were interpreted as criticism in South Africa, where President Thabo Mbeki is performing a tricky balancing act.

Mr. Mbeki has to deal with the crisis next door — without alienating his own constituency inside South Africa. Thus, Mr. Powell wins points for castigating Mugabe, but loses some for alienating an ally.

President Bush proposes to extend, beyond 2008, the African Growth and Opportunity Act. It was originally passed by the U.S. Congress and signed by President Clinton in 2000. This is good — but cannot be considered a path-breaking idea.

The United States has also joined with others in the G-8 to support the New Partnership for African Development (Nepad), a collaboration between African countries and businesses to promote sustainable growth — and to reform political, economic and corporate practices.

A much bolder move for the United States would be to do something about dismantling American and European farm subsidies. Rather than work together productively on this topic, Mr. Bush has engaged in a diversionary tactic by picking a fight over genetically modified foods.

President Bush has trumpeted his "Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief" as a symbol of American compassion. However, the Washington, D.C.-based Global Aids Alliance (GAA) points out that Mr. Bush has failed to live up to his promises to boost aid to Africa to fight HIV/AIDS.

In fact, his budget has underfunded his own initiative. This slow pace belies the President's activist rhetoric about responding to an emergency. It has been over a year since he started the Millennium Challenge Account, a new fund set aside for developing countries. It still has no money.

While the Bush Administration disparages multilateral approaches, African countries work through international organizations to get their voices heard.

Cutting military aid to South Africa and other countries as punishment for not toeing the U.S. line — regarding the International Criminal Court — causes more damage to U.S. national interests than to its allies.

Mr. Bush's decision to bypass the United Nations in launching a war against Iraq has alienated former South African President Nelson Mandela — the most popular leader in Africa — among others. (Notably, the Nobel Peace Prize winner was "out of the country" during Mr. Bush's visit.)

In summary, it appears that Americans are comfortable feeding the starving and (talking about) fighting disease in Africa. However, the U.S. is not completely committed to disarming the roving bands of thugs and murderous jihadists who are making daily life in some parts of Africa a truly dangerous experience.

The Bush Administration's approach, particularly through initiatives like the Millennium Challenge Account and the emphasis on enhanced trade, offer the most to those African countries that are already reforming — and are relatively better off than their neighbors.

The Bush Administration says it is compassionate, and is the top donor of food aid in the world. But it has not (yet) responded with decisive speed to the true emergency of HIV/AIDS and the threat represented by failed and failing states. It would be a real shame for President Bush to respond to the "great potential" of African countries with empty promises, weak funding — and shallow photo-ops.