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Bush’s Visit Renews Focus on State of U.S.-Africa Relations

February 21, 2008 at 6:20 PM EDT
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President Bush concluded a five day visit to Africa Thursday, making a final stop in Liberia where he pledged that the United States would help the country rebuild after a decade of civil war. Experts evaluate the state of U.S.-Africa relations.

RAY SUAREZ: On this, the last day of his African tour, President Bush reveled in music and a warm welcome in Liberia.

It’s been the same everywhere as he’s traversed the African continent, where his popularity ratings are high. His stops included Benin, Tanzania, Rwanda, Ghana and Liberia.

President Bush has been promoting his multibillion-dollar anti-AIDS/HIV programs and handing out assistance packages, part of his Millennium Challenge Account program, which provides U.S. aid to African nations.

Mr. Bush’s tour started Saturday in Benin, one of Africa’s most stable democracies, yet also one of its most severely underdeveloped. Mr. Bush praised the Benin president for efforts to stamp out corruption, a condition of Millennium Challenge aid.

GEORGE W. BUSH, President of the United States: Leaders around the world have got to understand that the United States wants to partner with leaders and their people, but we’re not going to do so with people that steal money.

RAY SUAREZ: Tens of thousands turned out to see President Bush in Tanzania, a poor East African nation, but one free of internal strife. At a hospital in the northern highlands, the president handed out mosquito nets, part of a U.S. program to reduce malaria deaths in sub-Saharan Africa.

Each year, over one million people die from malaria, most of them young children in the region.

Next, to Rwanda. President Bush paid tribute to the hundreds of thousands killed in that country’s 1994 genocide, and he drew parallels to the current killings in Darfur.

GEORGE W. BUSH: One of the lessons of the genocide in Rwanda was to take some of the early warning signs seriously.

RAY SUAREZ: In Ghana yesterday, President Bush tried to dispel concerns the U.S. intends to establish bases in Africa under its recently created military command in Africa known as AFRICOM.

GEORGE W. BUSH: The purpose of this is not to add military bases. I know there’s rumors in Ghana, “All Bush is coming to do is try to convince you to put a big military base here.” That’s baloney. Or as we say in Texas, that’s bull.

Mr. President made it clear to me. He said, “Look, you’re not going to build any bases in Ghana.” I said, “I understand. Nor do we want to.”

Now, that doesn’t mean we won’t develop some kind of office somewhere in Africa. We haven’t made our minds up.

RAY SUAREZ: An American base in Africa didn’t come up publicly in Liberia, but the country’s president, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, has offered in the past to host U.S. military bases in her West African nation.

Today, President Bush promised continued aid to help Liberia, founded in the 19th century by freed American slaves, rebuild from a 14-year civil war that ended just five years ago.

GEORGE W. BUSH: You know, one of the things I’ve learned — and I suspect the people of Liberia have learned — it’s easier to tear a country down than it is to rebuild a country. And the people of this good country must understand the United States will stand with you as you rebuild your country.

RAY SUAREZ: But President Bush’s African tour avoided the continent’s current war zones: the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where a long civil war has claimed 4.5 million lives; the Sudan, where the Darfur crisis continues unabated for a sixth year; and Kenya, where political and tribal violence have enveloped the country since a disputed election this past December.

Mr. Bush sent Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice there as his proxy Monday to apply pressure on rival parties to break their stalemate.

This is President Bush’s second trip to Africa, the same as President Clinton, but one more than his father and President Carter.

Weighing U.S. interest in region

Julius Nyang'oro
University of North Carolina
[W]hen we go back to the 1960s, the United States' policy towards Africa was really based on the former colonial powers, and the U.S. really didn't know much about Africa. And as a result of that, many poor choices in terms of policy were made.

RAY SUAREZ: Now, to three views on the U.S. and Africa. Julius Nyang'oro is professor of African studies at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and a consultant for the U.S. government. Born in Tanzania, he's now a U.S. citizen.

Ambassador Anthony Holmes, a career U.S. diplomat and former ambassador to Burkina Faso, he's now a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.

And Richard Joseph, professor of political science at Northwestern University in Chicago.

And, Professor Joseph, let's start with you. Looking out from Washington at the rest of the world, and with all that is on American policymakers' plates, is Africa important to the United States in 2008?

RICHARD JOSEPH, Northwestern University: Africa is extremely important, and I hope that President Bush's trip will call attention to it. This is a continent for which we are relying for more and more of our oil and gas supplies.

It's a country where democratization is making progress, despite difficulties. And it's also a continent in which Islam is very present in many parts of the country, the continent, but which is an Islam that is usually for the large part moderate and accommodative.

So there are many of our core interests that really connect us with the African continent.

RAY SUAREZ: And, Professor Nyang'oro, was it that way in the past? Has the United States had an abiding and enduring interest in what goes on in the 50-plus countries of the African continent?

JULIUS NYANG'ORO, University of North Carolina: Well, I think this is a new development when we consider what the United States did in the 1960s and '70s, whereby American policy on the continent was based on Cold War calculations. So I think, as Richard has just indicated, this new development is quite promising and most welcome.

RAY SUAREZ: Why so late to the party? Is it because so much of Africa was controlled by European powers until the '60s?

JULIUS NYANG'ORO: Well, when we go back to the 1960s, the United States' policy towards Africa was really based on the former colonial powers, and the U.S. really didn't know much about Africa. And as a result of that, many poor choices in terms of policy were made.

For example, the U.S. came very late to the anti-apartheid struggle in southern Africa. It wasn't until the time that Zimbabwe was becoming independent in 1980 that the United States actually got on the bandwagon of anti-apartheid policies.

And for this reason, I think, the U.S. is catching up, but it's catching up fairly quickly, and I think this is a good thing.

Establishing aid programs

Anthony Holmes
Council on Foreign Relations
[A]fter the attacks of September 11th, the Bush administration looked at what we were doing in Africa and clearly decided that we needed to augment that a lot.

RAY SUAREZ: Ambassador Holmes, did the U.S. embassy bombings in Africa and the September 11th attacks here in the United States change the American view of Africa and its strategic importance?

ANTHONY HOLMES, Former State Department Official: I think it underscored the importance of a deepened engagement with Africa. We looked around at the world and wanted to know where areas generating terrorists might be and where those who are already terrorists might seek refuge.

And there were vast areas of Africa that were essentially failed states, largely uncontrolled by their governments. And it was important for us to reach out to Africa, to assist African countries in developing the means to control their countries and to, more broadly, assist in their developments so that there wouldn't be terrorists generated in Africa.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, you heard Professor Nyang'oro talk about the United States as a late-comer on the African continent and a Cold War participant. Many of the final chapters of the Cold War were played out in African civil wars.

In a post-Cold War Africa, what was the United States' priority? Was it the failed states that were sort of the hangover of the Cold War? Was humanitarian crises the number-one thing? How did the United States start again in the '90s?

ANTHONY HOLMES: Well, in fact, the '90s wasn't a proud era for U.S. engagement in Africa. But it's important to realize that there's always been a lot of altruism central to the United States' engagement in Africa.

But in the aftermath of the Cold War, after the breakup of the Soviet Union, there was really a domestic political consensus in the United States that we needed a peace dividend here at home. And, unfortunately, that led to drastic cuts in our foreign assistance programs, and Africa suffered.

So during the first part of the '90s, we really cut back our aid. And only in 1996 or '97 did it start to rise again.

But then, of course, after not so much the embassy bombings in 1998, but after the attacks of September 11th, the Bush administration looked at what we were doing in Africa and clearly decided that we needed to augment that a lot.

So he created several signature initiatives that have been highlighted during the course of the past few days in his visit that he wanted to use to show tangible positive results in Africa, and that entailed intensive investment in some narrow areas.

So in terms of the fight against HIV/AIDS, his PEPFAR program provided $15 million during the course of five years, which was very impressive.

And then the Millennium Challenge Corporation, which you mentioned in your lead-in, hasn't disbursed funds as quickly as possible, but it's a great benefit to the dozen countries that have signed compacts and, I think, represents a commitment of over $3 billion so far.

Addressing areas of conflict

Richard Joseph
Northwestern University
[Bush] did visit some post-conflict countries, like Rwanda and Liberia ... but we mustn't overlook the fact that maybe a quarter of the countries in Africa now are really embroiled in some very long and deep conflicts.

RAY SUAREZ: Professor Joseph, if it was the Soviet Union that was driving American interest in Africa in the '60s and '70s, is it China today in 2008?

RICHARD JOSEPH: Well, China's very important now on the African continent. Chinese presence has grown tremendously in the last decade. And in every sphere, we see China present. And the Chinese president and premier have both made a couple of visits to Africa.

So the U.S. has to be able to engage with China on a number of fronts. But we also have counterterrorism globally, concerns for security, and those are also driving U.S. policies in Africa, sometimes for the good and sometimes for the bad.

I really think we shouldn't finish here without mentioning what is going on in some of the conflict zones. The president, of course, sort of skirted those countries. I personally wished he had gone to Kenya himself and might have been able to make a difference there.

So he did visit some post-conflict countries, like Rwanda and Liberia and others that have been doing quite well, like Benin, Tanzania and Ghana, but we mustn't overlook the fact that maybe a quarter of the countries in Africa now are really embroiled in some very long and deep conflicts.

And those also engage the U.S. for a whole number of reasons, humanitarian reasons, but also because we're concerned about the possibilities of jihadists, Islamists becoming involved in that or even the people of the continent feeling such misery and despair that the insecurity widens.

So I would say China is a factor, counterterrorism definitely, but also the impoverishment in which many African people are trapped and where we have to be able to see some gains going forward.

RAY SUAREZ: Professor Nyang'oro, you just heard your colleague talk about the conflict zones. Is the United States, because of its other commitments in the world, able to really be a big player there? President Bush during his visit expressed some frustration, for instance, with the slow world response to the need for personnel in Darfur.

JULIUS NYANG'ORO: Well, at the moment, what the U.S. government is involved in is in the capacity-building of African militaries for purposes of peacekeeping. When you have a conflict zone like you have in many parts of the African continent, what you need is African solutions for African problems.

And part of the solution to many of the issues of conflict that Richard has just mentioned have got to do with the capacity of the peacekeeping force, which would be under the African Union, which is the continental organization concerned with the political and military affairs of the continent.

And what the U.S. government has done has been to offer military support, in terms of training and capacity-building for militaries in Africa to be able to perform peacekeeping functions.

The second element has got to do with places such as Darfur. Now, the internal conflicts in Darfur have had deleterious effect in neighboring countries. As we speak right now, there's a serious conflict in Chad, a conflict which actually emanates from the problems in the Sudan.

And, therefore, I would urge the United States government to take a serious look at not only what is happening in areas that are already under conflict, such as the Democratic Republic of the Congo, but also to be able to work with the Sudan and other neighboring countries to ensure that the conflicts in those countries do not spill over to neighboring countries. The case of Chad is quite telling.

Looking toward future policy

Anthony Holmes
Council on Foreign Relations
Increasingly now we identify HIV/AIDS as a national security threat to the United States and protecting the environment, as well. And that's very unlikely to change.

RAY SUAREZ: Ambassador, we're entering the final phase of an eight-year presidency. And there's so much going on in Africa, as you and the other colleagues have mentioned.

Does interest in Africa wax and wane with the change of administrations? What might African heads of state be wondering about what happens in January 2009?

ANTHONY HOLMES: Well, Ray, I think there's actually been an amazing consistency in U.S. policy towards Africa for the past 20 years, essentially since the end of the Reagan administration.

I mean, the United States -- both the American people and the U.S. government -- identify our interests as being the resolution of conflicts, the promotion of democracy and human rights, and the economic development of the continent.

Increasingly now we identify HIV/AIDS as a national security threat to the United States and protecting the environment, as well. And that's very unlikely to change.

What more is the case is focus and willingness to spend political capital in Africa and to invest U.S. foreign assistance in Africa. That ebbs and flows a little bit, but I would expect the next administration, regardless of whether it's led by a Democratic or Republican president, to prioritize Africa a little bit higher. It still comes out at the bottom of the list vis-a-vis other continents in the world.

But at the same time, in the post-9/11 world, we can't afford to ignore places like Africa. We have a lot of interests there, security interests, economic interests, and that's only going to increase. So I agree completely with Dr. Joseph.

RAY SUAREZ: Ambassador, professors, gentlemen, thank you all.