Bush trip to a bastion of support - Africa

His week-long visit will focus on humanitarian improvements.

Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP
Before the trip: On Thursday at the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art in Washington, Bush previewed his Africa trip. He also announced that Condoleezza Rice, who will accompany him on the trip, will also travel to Kenya.

When President Bush visits Liberia as part of a week-long trip to Africa, which was set to begin Friday, he just may hear a popular song whose refrain includes these words: "Thank God for George Bush!"

The Liberian ditty from 2003 reflects appreciation for US intervention in the country's political strife. But in a broader sense, it represents how much of sub-Saharan Africa stands out as a bastion of goodwill toward the United States – and Mr. Bush – at a time of high international opprobrium for the US.

The reason for the African difference is simple. Against all expectations for what a Texas governor who dismissed Africa's national-security importance would do as president, Bush has elevated Africa's ranking on the presidential priority list, taking two policy-redefining steps that are likely to carry over into the next US administration:

•Bush raised Africa's place on America's global map of national security by creating AFRICOM, the US Africa Command. It will oversee American military operations and relations on the continent and elevate Africa's role in the battle with international terrorism.

•Bush has made the continent the focus of the international application of his "compassionate conservatism" creed: Africa is the workshop for Bush's Millennium Challenge grants, which seek to redefine the way the US practices foreign assistance by rewarding good governance and democratic regimes. In addition, the continent receives the lion's share of Bush's substantial HIV/AIDS funding and his administration's efforts to eradicate malaria.

The president is set to visit Benin, Tanzania, Rwanda, Ghana, and Liberia with first lady Laura Bush, while skirting such current trouble spots as Kenya, Nigeria, and Somalia. (On Thursday, however, Bush indicated that he would delay his trip to Africa if the House is still working on a key ntelligence law that is set to expire.)

With such an itinerary, some critics smell a feel-good trip tailor-made for a beleaguered president. Others say the upbeat tone of the trip will paper over a "militarization" of US policy in Africa and international economic policies that impede Africa's development.

But other experts see it as a logical destination for a president who has dramatically changed the US approach to Africa.

"US engagement with Africa at the strategic level is at an all-time high point," says Peter Pham, an expert in America's Africa policy at James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Va. "But that is also true for the economic involvement and humanitarian commitment."

Bush is asking Congress to double the initial funding for the President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief – known as PEPFAR – to $30 billion over the next five years. The Bush administration has also signed 16 "compacts" under the Millennium Challenge program totaling more than $5 billion, many of them with African countries.

Administration officials say that even more important than the increased aid totals for Africa is the way the Bush programs are changing and improving lives. At a recent briefing in Washington on Bush's Africa trip, National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley said, "We are measuring success by the number of lives that change, not the number of dollars that change hands."

The US under PEPFAR is already providing medical treatment to 1.4 million people diagnosed with HIV or AIDS, the administration says, a number that could jump to 2.5 million under Bush's new funding request. The goal of the doubled funding would also be to prevent 12 million new infections and to help care for millions more people affected by the disease.

On malaria, Bush's initiative includes the distribution of 6 million insecticide-treated bed nets to fight a scourge that is estimated to claim 1 million children under age 5 annually in sub-Saharan Africa.

Given such numbers, Bush's Africa trip should be seen as more than just the "feel-good victory lap" to impress the US domestic audience that it may partially be, some experts say. They say it shows the new place of global health issues in national-security discussions.

What the Bush programs demonstrate is how "global health has graduated into a mainstream foreign-policy priority," says Stephen Morrison, director of the Africa program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington. Beyond that, he says the emphasis on health – and in particular on programs that zero in on individual needs – has played a significant role in building America's image on the continent.

"Global health has turned out to be a critical investment in terms of preserving US standing in Africa," says Mr. Morrison – noting that Africa includes eight of the 10 countries where global surveys show opinion of the US has held up during the Bush years.

The emphasis on health and good governance and a skirting of the crises roiling Africa suggest a deliberate effort to promote a particular picture of US policy in Africa, some say. Yet it's not a "disengagement" from the difficult crises, says Morrison, but rather "a question of not preferring to make these tough, complex crises the centerpiece of the trip."

Adds Jennifer Cooke, another Africa expert at CSIS, "[Bush] will be down­playing some of the hard-power interventions, which tend to be the more controversial, and really focusing on these soft-power, good-news stories."

But that should not fool anyone into thinking that US policy in Africa is purely humanitarian or devoid of national interests, others say. Africa Action, a Washington-based advocacy group, says that US military activity in the continent tied to the war on terror – in terms of arms sales, assistance, and training – has more than tripled over pre-9/11 levels.

Beyond terrorism, the strategic interest in Africa extends to securing energy supplies, experts say. Africa fills almost a quarter of US energy imports. Another interest is in challenging China's growing hold on Africa's resources, they say.

That the US is addressing its own interests when it pursues policies that improve its image overseas shouldn't surprise anyone, says Mr. Pham of James Madison University. On the contrary, he says, the combination of US interests in Africa and America's continuing good standing there should register with whoever occupies the White House next.

"Africa in the energy field can help us diversify away from the Middle East. It's demonstrating the link between development and security, and it's a place where our humanitarian efforts do have a resonance," says Pham. "Taking those things together, any administration should see the wisdom of remaining engaged in Africa."

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