Far apart on US shores, Bush and Obama find time to meet in Africa

The two US presidents, in Tanzania together by 'coincidence,' will lay a wreath at the site of a 1998 Al Qaeda bombing of the US embassy.

Gary Cameron/REUTERS
US President Barack Obama greets Tanzanians at an official arrival ceremony in Dar Es Salaam, July 1, 2013.

President Obama and predecessor George W. Bush haven’t exactly spent a lot of time together on American shores.

But with Mr. Bush still quite popular in Africa for his robust US aid programs, and with Tanzania going slightly crazy about the visit of an American president of African heritage, the US duo is hoping to offer up a bit of American soft power on behalf of US trade and better relations on the continent.

The 44th  and 43rd  US presidents will jointly lay a wreath in Dar es Salaam tomorrow in honor of those killed 15 years ago at a bombing of the American embassy, in what proved to be one of the first attacks on a US target by Osama bin Laden.

The White House described the joint wreath-laying as a coincidence, not scripted. At first, it appeared the two men would not meet despite being in the same city in the same corner of Africa.

Mr. Obama’s journey to Africa has included stopovers in Senegal and an emotional visit to South Africa, where Obama met the family of Nelson Mandela, the civil and human rights icon and former president who helped end apartheid.

The White House admits the Africa trip is an effort to improve the administration’s engagement with a continent where Chinese investment has risen from $10 billion in 2000 to some $200 billion last year, usually through state-run or state-linked companies.  In March, new Chinese President Xi Jinping visited Tanzania on his first overseas trip.

Yesterday Obama announced a surprisingly robust $7 billion initiative to help with African electrification, and tomorrow the president visits a US-designed and run power plant in Tanzania. 

The White House is in the East African nation partly because, on a six-day Africa trip designed to promote  trade and democracy, Obama needed to go to East Africa but could not easily visit old ally Kenya, since both the recently elected president and vice president are under indictment by the International Criminal Court for complicity in 2007 election violence.

Bush is in Dar es Salaam for a women’s conference on health that is run out of his George W. Bush institute. Contrary to many assumptions, Bush, as well as former President Bill Clinton, is widely seen as bringing far more tangible help to Africa than Obama.

Bush’s Emergency Plan of AIDS Relief is one of his administrations signal foreign policy successes, and Obama has praised it both in Senegal and then South Africa for helping to save millions of lives. At the same time, Obama has said the old US model of handing out aid willy-nilly on the continent is now giving way to a "new model" of trade and joint US-African partnerships, as Africa's economy continues to rise. 

In the Obama-Bush event, the White House evidently feels it makes sense to show togetherness in a place where Chinese investment and a wide network of expatriate business and trade communities from Great Britain, France, and Germany have often put American firms well in the back of the race on a continent that is starting to show dramatic signs of economic rise.

As Monitor correspondent Mike Pflanz noted in talking with Kenyan sources last week:

Obama is perfectly placed to “leverage the lashings of soft power he has in Africa” to succeed in both of his trip’s main aims: opening up new trade and cautioning over corruption, says Aly-Khan Satchu, a Kenyan economic analyst.

“He’s arriving behind the curve, but now is the chance for him to inflect that curve for the next few years,” Mr. Satchu says. “Obama has so much soft power here that he has not yet used. Put that on the table, and you watch the dialogue change immediately about his supposed semi-detached engagement in Africa."

Mr. Pflanz also pointed out the other side of the US trade equation, noting that China in recent months:

has inked deals on a raft of major infrastructure projects across Africa, the most recent being a $10 billion new port, railway, and economic zone agreed in May for Tanzania.

 “The US under Barack Obama seems only now to be waking up to what others are doing in Africa, and they are having to play catch-up,” says Andrews Atta-Asamoah, senior researcher at South Africa’s Institute for Security Studies.

Announcing the electricity program in Capetown yesterday, Obama stated that: 

Access to electricity is fundamental to opportunity in this age. It's the light that children study by, the energy that allows an idea to be transformed into a real business. It's the lifeline for families to meet their most basic needs, and it's the connection that's needed to plug Africa into the grid of the global economy.

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