July 10, 2003
George W. Bush made it clear during the presidential campaign in 2000 that Africa ranked low on his list of priorities. Jim Lehrer, who moderated the three debates between Bush and Al Gore, noted during one of them that while 600,000 people were being killed in Rwanda in 1994, the United States had done nothing to stop the slaughter. Had it been a mistake, he asked Bush, for the Clinton administration not to intervene?
"I think the administration did the right thing in that case," Bush answered, even though "it was a horrible situation."
Lehrer pressed him. "What would you say, governor, to somebody who would say: 'Hey, wait a minute. Why not Africa? . . . Why the Balkans, but not Africa, when 600,000 people's lives are at risk?' "
Replied Bush: "Well, I understand. And Africa's important. And we've got to do a lot of work in Africa to promote democracy and trade. . . . But there's got to be priorities. . . . We can't be all things to all people in the world, Jim."
He wouldn't give the same answers today. Bush appears to be on the verge of sending US troops to lead peacekeeping efforts in Liberia; if he gives the go-ahead, it will be the first US military involvement in Africa since the "Black Hawk Down" disaster in Mogadishu in 1993.
But even apart from Liberia, Africa plainly matters more to Bush now than it did 2-1/2 years ago. It isn't only Republican partisans who think so. "You'll think I'm off my trolley when I say this," commented Bob Geldof, the Irish rock star who has raised millions of dollars for African food relief, during a visit to Ethiopia in May, "but the Bush administration is the most radical -- in a positive sense -- in its approach to Africa since Kennedy."
Signs of Bush's heightened interest in Africa have not been hard to find. Even before this week's visit to five countries in sub-Saharan Africa, he had already met with 22 of the region's 48 heads of state, more than any previous president. In his State of the Union address in January, he proposed spending $15 billion over five years to combat AIDS in 14 afflicted countries, 12 of them in Africa. Another Bush initiative, the Millennium Challenge Account, would spend billions more to reward African countries that take concrete steps to promote economic freedom and protect civil liberties.
For more than two years, the president has repeatedly condemned the Islamist government of Sudan, whose savagery toward the country's black African population has left 2 million people dead, 4 million homeless, and -- perhaps most shocking of all -- tens of thousands in chattel slavery. "Sudan is a disaster area for human rights," he declared bluntly in May 2001, vowing "to speak and act for as long as the persecution and atrocities in the Sudan last." At a White House ceremony last fall, he spoke with Francis Bok, a former Sudanese slave who escaped in 1996. It was the first meeting between a US president and an ex-slave since the 19th century.
Bush's lieutenants have followed their commander's lead.
In May 2002, for example, former Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill spent 11 days on an "Odd Couple" tour of sub-Saharan Afroca with Bono, the lead singer of U2. (Like Geldof, Bono has taken a deep interest in Africa's humanitarian needs). At the World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg last fall, Secretary of State Colin Powell condemned the blatantly racist government of Zimbabwe's Robert Mugabe, and didn't flinch when he was booed for speaking the truth. He repeated his condemnation in a New York Times op-ed column last month, and urged the governments of southern Africa to join the United States in opposing the Mugabe repression. "In the long run," he wrote, "President Mugabe and his minions will lose, dragging their soiled record behind them into obscurity."
Clearly, concern for Africa has become something of a Bush administration cause -- which is saying a lot for a White House whose foreign policy agenda includes rebuilding Iraq, a nuclear North Korea, and the exhausting treadmill of Middle East "peacemaking." Not to mention a war on international terrorism.
What accounts for the change in outlook since Oct. 2000 ("We can't be all things to all people in the world, Jim")? Part of the answer is Sept. 11: Bush is now vividly aware that failing states can become incubators of terror. But part of it is also Bush's personal hierarchy of values, and a desire to demonstrate the strength of his commitment to "compassionate conservatism."
"We care deeply about the plight of the African citizen," Bush told African journalists last week. "We're not only trading partners . . . We not only care deeply about the pandemic of AIDS, but . . . hear the cries of those who are sick and tired of corruption on the continent of Africa. . . There is tremendous suffering. . . . When we see starvation, we don't turn our back. We act. We care about the people of the continent."
There is little political gain in any of this for Bush. Africa is not a salient issue for most of his political base, and only 8 percent of black voters supported him in 2000. Barring a fiasco in Liberia, US policy in Africa is not likely to be a hot issue in 2004. The president's determination to help Africa appears to be fueled mostly by something few would have expected from this intensely political White House: the conviction that it is the right thing to do. From Bush fans and Bush foes alike, that deserves a cheer.