President Bush's first African trip - rescheduled from January, before the Iraq war, to next week - will present the perpetual conundrum Africa represents to American leaders: Some attention is better than no attention, but a little attention doesn't begin to address Africa's monumental economic and political problems.
It is simplistic to talk about “Africa's problems.” The continent is divided into 54 countries, each of which has an individual modern history, most dating from independence from the colonial powers around 1960.
There is also the classic division between North Africa, with strong Arabic influence, and sub-Saharan Africa, with a mostly black population. There are also divisions among Christians, Muslims, and animists.
That said, it is fair to note that at almost any time since 1960, serious disorder has plagued one or more African countries. Also, the continent mostly has confounded efforts of its own leaders and those of the outside world to bring about economic development and improvements in education, health care, and infrastructure.
The Bush Administration has sought to have the United States address these problems largely through economic means. It has extended some trade benefits to some African countries. It is providing help to Africa in addressing the AIDS crisis there, mind-numbing in its magnitude and impact.
It is seeking to address the core problem of corruption in African governments, through conditioning economic aid on the presence of genuine democratic institutions in a country and an aggressive approach by local leaders to the problem of graft. It is also seeking to work through African institutions that are prepared to address Africa's economic and political problems in a way that attempts to get past the narrow national approach that has so often characterized the continent's collective response to problems.
One institution is the New Partnership for Africa's Development (NEPAD). Another is the new African Union (AU), which has replaced the failed Organization of African Unity (OAU). Both NEPAD and the AU offer hope, but so far are largely talk shops as opposed to action organizations in the face of problems.
Mr. Bush is scheduled to visit Senegal, Nigeria, South Africa, Botswana, and Uganda, July 7-12. He will be carefully staying away from the parts of the continent that are ablaze at the moment - Liberia, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Zimbabwe, for example - although he will be encouraging the African leaders he meets to address those problems on a regional basis.
It is probably safe to say that almost no American wants Mr. Bush to put U.S. forces into Liberia, the Congo, or Zimbabwe to fix things, although, absent the weapons of mass destruction argument, the people of each of those countries are as badly ruled as the Iraqis were under Saddam Hussein.
For now it is useful that Mr. Bush go to Africa, talk with African leaders there, and have a good look. He will then be prepared for a meaningful review of U.S. African policy, including the question of what the appropriate American approach should be to the so-far unaddressed problems presented by the long-standing disorder and an absence of development.