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In Africa, Bush touts aid efforts, basks in popularity

Mr. Bush has been generally well-received so far on his five-country trip to Africa.

By Scott BaldaufStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / February 19, 2008

Welcome: President Bush greeted Masai students Monday at a school in Arusha, Tanzania.

Charles Dharapak/ap

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Kwesi Amukwah, who sells Ghanaian soccer shirts, has nothing but praise for President Bush, if only because the world's most powerful leader will pay his western African nation a visit Wednesday. "You look at a small country like Ghana," says Mr. Amukwah, "and he still thinks of us."

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His colleague Yaw Asare, adds admiringly, "I like Bush because he is a bold man, when he makes up his mind he just does it." And with this an argument breaks out. Mr. Asare praises Bush's toughness in dealing with Islamist terrorists; Amukwah criticizes the war in Iraq with equal vehemence.

The row fades, and Amukwah offers another explanation for why Mr. Bush and America are so popular in Africa: it still represents the dream of a better life. "American life is better than us – we see it on TV. And there are lots of jobs, but here the economics are not good, we struggle." Asare agrees with this enthusiastically.

Looking through the lens of 2001, it might have been difficult to predict that Africa would become the place on the planet where President Bush would be voted most popular. When Bush and his Republican Party came to power in 2001, the continent was low on the list of foreign policy priorities. Many fiscal conservatives promised to end foreign aid as we knew it, and to focus American tax dollars, diplomacy, and military might where American interests demanded.

Now, as Bush is midway through a six-day, five-nation tour of Africa, it's clear the world has changed.

This week, after signing a major $700 million US development package with Tanzania, Mr. Bush heard these words from his Tanzanian counterpart, President Jakaya Kikwete: "Different people may have different views about you and your administration and your legacy," he said. "We in Tanzania, if we are to speak for ourselves and for Africa, we know for sure that you, Mr. President, and your administration, have been good friends of our country and ... of Africa."

In a recent poll by the Pew Research Center for People & the Press, eight of the Top 10 nations that gave America the highest approval ratings were African, a reflection of increases in American aid as well as trust in its institutions and leadership. (The other two nations in the Top 10? Israel, and America.)

"The thing is, Africa basically falls outside the geopolitical attention of American foreign policy, and as a whole, it tends to be noncontroversial," says Francis Kornegay, a senior researcher at the Center for Policy Studies in Johannesburg. "So it is not surprising that you would find a positive reception for certain policies in Africa," particularly those that offer development aid.

"There will be certain pockets of protest," he adds, notably over the Bush administration's policies in the Middle East and the war against terrorists. "Bush's foreign policy is globally unpopular, and that does tend to get reflected even in Africa. But it's not a deep-seated hostility. Africa is just not at the epicenter of America's conflicts."

Bush's second visit to Africa is meant to highlight several of his policy initiatives – on HIV and AIDS, on economic development, and on military ties – that have made a marked impact on the continent. In Tanzania, Bush cemented a long-term aid project designed to reward good governance and transparency with additional aid dollars. In Rwanda, President Bush will highlight his $15 billion program on AIDS treatment and prevention.