President Bush can safely claim a positive legacy in Africa, which he tours starting Feb. 15. He increased funds for health and tied foreign aid to reform. But one legacy hangs in the balance: a new American security arrangement there.
It's called AFRICOM, a United States military command center for the continent. It replaces a cold-war setup that viewed Africa as secondary to larger security concerns. That's why its oversight was long divided among three US command centers that focus on other global regions.
A year ago, the White House announced one central command for the continent. Africa had become too strategically important to be divvied up and filed away in various military portfolios. It deserved its own four-star general, watching over Africa as a whole.
AFRICOM's mission isn't to wage war, but to prevent it. To that end, its deputy commander is a diplomat from the State Department – a unique arrangement.
It looks like the administration has learned a critical lesson: Africa is important.
The US has a strategic stake in this part of the world, in part because of its natural resources. African oil is projected to account for 25 percent of US oil imports by 2015. Certainly China recognizes the potential and has been busily investing in Africa's energy sector.
At the same time, failed and failing states in Africa can breed terrorists, and anti-US sentiment among Muslims on the continent is rising.
Third, Africa's economic development depends on stability. Witness the recent violence in Kenya, which has upset transport for east Africa, hurt tourism, and raised questions about whether Nairobi can continue to function as a safe headquarters for foreign businesses and aid groups.
For decades, US foreign policy in Africa has been dubbed as either "benign neglect" or "selective engagement" – the latter a euphemism for cold-war support of despots opposed to communism. AFRICOM looks like a turn away from that. A long-term commitment.
But the Pentagon has a lot of convincing to do. Skeptics abound, both in Africa and at home.
To start with, the mission is unclear.
When AFRICOM was rolled out last February, its purpose was described as bringing peace and security to Africa by promoting health, education, democracy, and economic growth. That sounds like nation building – a job better handled by diplomats and aid professionals.
The Pentagon has since emphasized more conventional security roles – training African Union forces, helping to professionalize national militaries, assisting in humanitarian disasters (the US military spread a lot of goodwill when it helped after the Asia tsunami and Pakistan earthquake).
But it still talks of a "civic" role, which leaves some observers scratching their heads about what exactly AFRICOM will do, especially because it brings no troops to this endeavor.
Africans, too, have doubts. The worries center on the militarization of US foreign policy à la Iraq, and on ulterior, controlling motives. AFRICOM is supposed to set up shop on the continent by Oct. 1, but some countries resist hosting it (Liberia, though, is willing).
AFRICOM speaks to right US motives, but is it the best spokesman? That's not yet clear.