Bush team boosts efforts to resolve Africa conflicts

Bush plans a trip to the continent as diplomats focus on war in Liberia, Sudan.

President Bush has sought before to turn US attention more fully to Africa, but things have gotten in the way - first the war in Afghanistan, then war in Iraq.

But now, pressure is building for the US to take a lead role in keeping nascent peace efforts in Liberia alive, and Mr. Bush is embarking on a once-delayed visit to Africa early next month.

This renewed Africa focus offers the White House an opportunity to address some "softer" issues - accountable governance, sustainable development, conflict resolution, AIDS - at a time when much of the world sees American diplomacy as dominated by force. If all goes well, the trip may also coincide with an announcement of a peace plan for Sudan, which would allow Bush to tout the US role in resolving the continent's longest-running conflict.

But at the same time, the new spotlight highlights how Africa, long a distant runner-up on the list of US international priorities, is commanding new attention because of its key role in advancing both the war on terrorism and US energy security.

Not only is a growing share of US oil consumption expected to come from Africa, but the threat of failed, conflict-torn states playing even unwitting host to terror groups means the US isn't likely to lose its Africa interest anytime soon.

Indeed, US attention turned to Kenya last week, as the Pentagon posted an alert about a new terror threat that resulted in the closure of the US Embassy in Nairobi.

But still, the Bush administration is debating just how deep a role to play in Africa, as cracks develop in a cease-fire agreement signed June 17 by Liberia's government and two rebel groups.

Bush - who is expected in Senegal the week of July 7 for a summit of some African leaders, before continuing to South Africa - may not want to go with the image of having failed to intervene for peace in Liberia. On the other hand, the US remains reluctant to dive into thankless peacekeeping operations.

The debate may result in the US opting to place an emphasis on the power of example - working with and rewarding good-government regimes - while avoiding deep involvement in internal conflicts, some experts say. "From the perspective of the US administration, it makes sense to steer towards the long term, to emphasize the rewarding of good governance with foreign investment and state-strengthening that fills the voids where terrorists thrive," says Pierre Englebert, an Africa specialist at Pomona College in Claremont, Calif.

George Ayittey, a Ghanaian economist and Africa specialist at American University in Washington, says that until African leaders take the responsibility to stop Africa's conflicts and address its problems themselves, there is little Bush or the US can do. "By making these calls for foreign interventions all the time, they are absolving themselves of their responsibilities," he says. "The solutions have to come from Africa."

That kind of thinking explains to Mr. Englebert why Bush will focus on Senegal and South Africa in his trip. "These are two countries that are working hard at African economic integration and other Africa-based responses to problems," he says.

Domestic political pressures, however, are unlikely to allow the Bush administration to simply turn its back on Africa's humanitarian crises. The president's HIV/AIDS initiative is seen in part as an example of a keen White House awareness of the importance Africa holds for some key domestic constituencies - not just African-Americans, but segments of the religious right as well.

"It doesn't matter who is in the White House, they are going to feel pressure to take action and demonstrate they care more about the region," says John Prendergast, an adviser to the International Crisis Group who worked on African affairs with the Clinton administration.

Mr. Prendergast also says that the Bush administration's interest in Africa's role in US national security and energy supplies "is part of a continuum" that goes back to President Clinton's trips to Africa and the US embassy bombings of 1998.

Acceleration of that interest is evident in Pentagon plans for basing small contingents of US soldiers around the continent, as well as in Bush's interests in energy-producing countries.

Right now, the US has 1,500 Marines and special-operations soldiers in Djibouti in the horn of Africa. (On Sunday, one Marine was killed, and eight service members injured, in a training exercise there.) But plans are advancing to increase the number of soldiers to perhaps 6,500, which would be spread around small, rapid-reaction bases in several countries.

Yet while the debate over US stakes in Liberia continues, some Africa advocates see a bright spot in the way the Bush administration has maintained its interest in forging a settlement in Sudan.

Signs are growing that what is being called a "framework" for a full peace accord by the end of the year will be announced by the time Bush heads to Africa.

"The attention [to the Sudan conflict is not a] high-profile glare, but it is steady support for a resolution," says Mukesh Kapila, special adviser on Sudan to the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights. "That's what the US has been doing, and it's paying off."

Mr. Kapila says a peace accord in Sudan would have a ripple effect in neighboring countries - not least because an agreement, while promoted by outside forces, will be a "home-grown solution, and therefore one in which the parties feel they have a stake in upholding."

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