President Bush was in Africa last week to fight poverty and disease; i.e., AIDS, and to promote democracy, according to the White House. Since Africa is a breeding ground for disease and terrorism, I hope his trip produces concrete results on those important foreign policy issues.
Bush's six-day journey reminds me of a trip that former President Bill Clinton made to Africa three years ago. He too vowed to fight poverty and disease and to promote democracy. And what really happened beyond the usual photo-ops? Not much. In contrast to his lame duck predecessor, President Bush may actually be able to deliver on a major promise -- a $15 billion commitment to combat AIDS. It all depends on whether Congress and the White House can focus on Africa at a time when our government's attention is directed toward terrorism and violence in the Middle East.
The fact that two of the Bush administration's most influential foreign policy experts -- Secretary of State Colin Powell and National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice -- are African-Americans should bode well for Africa policy in this administration.
President Bush visited five sub-Saharan countries: Senegal, South Africa, Botswana, Uganda and Nigeria. Although he distributed some humanitarian "goodies" along the way, the underlying reason for his trip was national security. As Time magazine columnist Tony Karon noted, "Mr. Bush is first and foremost a national security president. His agenda in Africa remains grounded in his priority of defending the realm, and the increased U.S. engagement in Africa is driven by two familiar strategic concerns: Oil and terrorism."
Karon went on to say that international terrorists have made "excellent use of failed states such as Sudan and Somalia as safe havens to nurture a network of operatives that eventually stretched as far down East Africa as Malawi, and which has struck more than once with devastating effect." We remember the bombings of our embassies in Kenya and Tanzania five years ago and the October 2000 terrorist attack against the USS Cole in the port of Aden, Yemen. Because of those attacks, which killed 29 Americans and nearly 200 Africans, we have stationed a rapid reaction force of 5,000 U.S. Marines in Djibouti.
Nigeria, the most populous country in West Africa, could be fertile ground for al-Qaeda terrorists since its large Muslim population is antagonistic toward its own government over moral issues and enraged by the U.S. invasion of Iraq. Nigeria is a major oil supplier and the U.S. already imports about as much oil from Angola and Nigeria as it does from Saudi Arabia. And furthermore, the African share of our oil market is expected to double over the next two decades.
President Bush made a strong pitch for democracy in Senegal last Tuesday and called slavery "one of the greatest crimes of (American) history," although he didn't apologize for slavery as Clinton did. "At this place, liberty and life were stolen and sold," Bush said at Goree Island, from where slaves were shipped to America.
Bush also declared that the U.S. would help to bring peace to strife-torn Liberia, which was founded by freed American slaves in 1814. At the same time, however, he refused to commit American troops to that effort. "We're in the process of determining what is necessary to maintain the cease fire and to allow for a peaceful transfer of power," Bush told a group of African leaders, and he again called upon Liberian President Charles Taylor to step down before international peacekeepers are sent to that country.
Meanwhile, in Monrovia, an American military fact-finding delegation received a jubilant but chaotic welcome from thousands of Liberians pleading for U.S. intervention to end a 14-year civil war that has killed hundreds of thousands of Liberians.
So here's our Africa policy dilemma: While popular former South African President Nelson Mandela condemns President Bush as a "warmonger," thousands of Liberians clamor for American intervention. It reminds me of the old damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don't situation we faced in Latin America when I was stationed there during my Foreign Service career. We're accused of ignoring the Third World but when we intervene for humanitarian reasons, we suddenly become warmongering Yankee imperialists. Unfortunately, that's not likely to change any time soon.
And besides, the American military is stretched pretty thin these days. According to prominent military analyst Frederick Kagan, of 495,000 active-duty troops in the U.S. Army, 370,000 of them (nearly 75 percent) are already deployed overseas. In his opinion, "It is time to stop pretending that the United States can prosecute a war on terror, conduct peacekeeping operations in Iraq, Afghanistan, Kosovo and Bosnia (not to mention Liberia and Korea), and maintain the security of the homeland without a substantial increase in the size of the armed forces." President Bush and Congress should face that obvious fact sooner rather than later.
A New York Times editorial explained our newly discovered interest in Africa as follows: "For too long, Washington and other western capitals treated Africa as if it was condemned to war, poverty and preventable epidemics. (But) Mr. Bush understands that Africans are entitled to a better future, and that America can help them achieve it." Well, maybe, as long as the cost in American lives and/or taxpayer dollars isn't too high.
Guy W. Farmer, a semi-retired journalist and former U.S. diplomat, resides in Carson City.