George W. Bush dismayed many Africa experts during the 2000 presidential election debates when he announced that Africa was low on his list of foreign policy priorities and that he would not have sent U.S. troops to Rwanda to prevent genocide.
Nearly three years later, as President Bush leaves for his first visit to Africa today, the same experts have been struck by the amount of attention his administration has paid to a part of the world frequently ignored by U.S. policymakers. Economic and humanitarian assistance is up, the president has met personally with 22 of 48 African leaders, and Washington is closely involved in attempts to bring peace to Sudan.
Now, in a striking departure from Bush's insistence during the election campaign that he was flatly opposed to nation-building, the president seems poised to approve the first U.S. military intervention in Africa since the "Black Hawk Down" fiasco in Somalia a decade ago. The Pentagon has drawn up plans for the dispatch of about 2,000 U.S. troops to the West African state of Liberia, and White House officials talk about a strategic and moral obligation to prevent "failed states" from becoming breeding grounds for terrorism.
"The Bush administration has spent much more time on Africa than I would have imagined," said Kenneth Bacon, who was Pentagon spokesman during the Clinton administration and now heads Refugees International, a Washington-based relief organization. "It's been a real surprise."
Opinions remain divided over whether the president is prepared to back up his rhetoric with meaningful action to alleviate the problems of some of the world's poorest, most desperate countries. Some experts argue that U.S. assistance to Africa barely scratches the surface of a devastating HIV-AIDS crisis that is killing millions of people every year. Others are waiting to see whether the predicted U.S. intervention in Liberia, whose ties to the United States go back to its founding as a homeland for freed slaves in 1822, will succeed in halting a brutal, 13-year civil war.
Bush's willingness to focus attention on Africa reflects the growing influence of an eclectic lobbying coalition that includes aid groups, religious organizations, entrepreneurs and the Congressional Black Caucus. Christian evangelical groups, for example, claim much of the credit for persuading Bush to appoint a special presidential envoy to Sudan to stop the persecution of largely Christian southerners by the Muslim north.
Administration officials say that Bush's involvement with Africa has also been shaped by the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on New York and the Pentagon, which demonstrated the perils of ignoring failed states. For the White House, Bush's five-day, five-nation trip to Africa is an opportunity to demonstrate that the president is guided by his heart as well as his head, and that values are an important component of U.S. foreign policy.
"I'll be carrying a message [that] America cares about the future of Africa," Bush told African journalists last week. "It's in our national interest that Africa become a prosperous place. It's in our interest that people will continue to fight terror together. It's in our interest that, when we find suffering, we deal with it."
Some lobbyists on African issues and representatives of humanitarian groups remain deeply skeptical of the administration's efforts and say the president's trip is largely an exercise in public relations. "The U.S. gives almost no help to Africa. It's all talk," said Jeffrey D. Sachs, director of Columbia University's Earth Institute and a spokesman for the Global AIDS Alliance. "Our aid to Africa amounts to $4 per American per year."
According to the Congressional Research Service, U.S. development assistance to sub-Saharan Africa increased to slightly more than $1 billion this year from $738 million in 2000, the last year of the Clinton administration. The Bush administration has also pledged $15 billion for combating the global AIDS crisis over five years, much of which would go to Africa, and $5 billion for a proposed three-year "Millennium Challenge Account," restricted to countries that have shown progress in consolidating democracy. Earlier this month, Bush announced an initiative on counterterrorism, earmarking $100 million for five key African allies.
Critics argue that many of these programs exist only on paper and still have to be funded by Congress. Even so, the amount allocated represents a significant increase in the U.S. commitment to Africa, said Ted Gagne, a specialist in African affairs at the Congressional Research Service. "Our expectations were very low that this president would seriously engage Africa," Gagne said. "We misjudged him."
In some ways, Gagne and others say, Bush has displayed more interest in Africa than his Democratic predecessor, Bill Clinton, who was so traumatized by the Somalia imbroglio that he refused to intervene to prevent the massacres of millions of Rwandans in 1994. Clinton waited until his second term to visit Africa and to apologize to Rwandans for failing to "act quickly enough after the killing began."
"For almost five years after Somalia, the Clinton administration did not have an Africa policy," said Harry A. Johnston, a former Democratic congressman who chaired the House Committee on International Relations subcommittee on Africa. "It was almost immoral how we treated that continent." Johnston recalled that, during his two years as presidential envoy to Sudan, he never once met with Clinton.
By contrast, Johnston said, the Bush administration's Sudan envoy, former Republican senator John Danforth, has easy access to the president and was appointed in a White House Rose Garden ceremony.
The treatment of the two Sudan envoys is not an entirely fair measure of the Africa policies of the two administrations. The Clinton administration was reluctant to get deeply involved in Sudan because it suspected Khartoum of links to the al Qaeda terrorist organization. Africa experts say that the Bush administration's focus on Sudan has been motivated in part by the calls of conservative religious groups on behalf of Sudanese Christians.
"There's no question that evangelicals were critical in pushing the president to take a stand," said Richard Cizik, vice president for government affairs for the National Association of Evangelicals. "We are a constituency that represents 20 percent of the Republican base, and we are energized and want answers."
Some administration insiders say that the influence of the evangelicals on the president has been exaggerated. They say that Bush has listened to a wide range of people on Africa, from the rock star Bono to Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, the first African American to serve as the top U.S. diplomat. Powell, who has made two trips to Africa as secretary, has told associates that he is "deadly serious" about doing something about the problems of the continent.
Another African American, national security adviser Condoleezza Rice, has also played a role in igniting the president's interest in Africa. Briefing reporters in advance of the trip last week, Rice emphasized the peculiar ties between America and Africa, dating back to the slave trade. Describing slavery as America's "birth defect," she said that Bush felt an obligation to "bring about reconciliation."
An administration Africa expert pointed out that the Bush administration has already put "boots on the ground" in Africa -- several thousand Marines are serving in the East African state of Djibouti, as part of the war on terrorism. A former French colony, Djibouti has been a staging post for U.S. military assistance to Yemen and Kenya, two countries that have been targeted by al Qaeda.
Susan Rice, who was assistant secretary of state for Africa during Clinton's second term, said the "jury is still out" on whether Bush is prepared to invest real resources in Africa. "They have spent a lot of time on the Sudan issue, but haven't been very engaged in the Congo, and places like Burundi, where the Clinton administration was actively engaged."
Although she commended the administration for its initiatives against AIDS, she expressed concern that much of the promised $15 billion may never materialize. "There is a gap between making a splash in a State of the Union address and what actually comes out of the appropriations process," she said. "It's too backloaded. You can't backload a program when 5,000 people are dying a day. It should be an emergency salvage operation."