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Published: Sunday, 7/20/2003

Promises to Africa

President Bush's visit to Africa, his first, provided positive and overdue attention to the continent. The longer-term impact will come in Mr. Bush's delivery on promises and attention to Africa's grave problems.

Grousing about the trip occurred on two counts.

The first is that he went to “easy” countries, countries such as Senegal, Nigeria, Uganda, Botswana, and South Africa, which are reasonably successful, as opposed to the continent's basket cases.

So what? There is sense in paying closer attention - in effect, rewarding - countries that are on the right track politically and economically. It is also consistent with the Bush Administration's regional approach to African issues. That policy puts primary responsibility for African countries' problems on neighboring and stronger countries such as Nigeria and South Africa.

Second, it was suggested that Mr. Bush visited Africa in quest of African-American votes in the 2004 elections. We would again say, what American president doesn't keep concerns of potential voters in mind as he carries out policy, including foreign policy?

Again, the attention he showed to the problems of sub-Saharan Africa, with a population of 800 million, is the real point. At the same time, there are significant problems in carrying out even Mr. Bush's relatively modest African policy.

One of the major elements is the attention he is showing to the global problem of AIDS, for which he has promised $15 billion over the next five years. The Republican-controlled Congress would do well not to betray him on his promise. It has already moved to reduce the first $3 billion installment to $2 billion. Mr. Bush needs to smack them down on this one.

A related issue is the general and logical economic-commercial approach that is the cornerstone of the Bush Administration's approach to Africa. It is based on a long-term strategy which says that African countries will never be able to stand on their own two feet - free of having to constantly ask for humanitarian relief to meet disasters and financial aid for development - until they build economies that provide for reliable export earnings.

The problem Mr. Bush's Administration faces in carrying out that policy is of its own making. Africa exports agricultural products. America, the European Union, and Japan have in place formidable protection for their own agricultural production that makes African countries virtually unable to compete.

In the case of the United States, the Bush Administration passed in 2002 a farm bill that included $100 billion in subsidies to American agriculture. In the area of aid, quite rightly to be directed to African countries that clean up their act in terms of corruption and other barriers to efficient production, is Mr. Bush's Millennium Challenge Account.

In principle, it will make $1.3 billion available next year to African and other countries that qualify. In practice, Congress is currently gnawing away at that to bring it down to $800 million.

Again, Mr. Bush needs to use his own substantial political capital to crack the whip on the Congress.

Another challenge to the Bush Administration's policy in Africa is how it deals with political disaster areas - failed states, if you will - such as Liberia and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Many observers and many African players are currently sawing on the administration to intervene militarily in Liberia to restore order, based on a range of dubious arguments. We continue to believe that the United States should do no more than provide air and logistical support to West African regional troops put in Liberia to do the job.

United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan, a West African himself, is apparently arguing for more extensive U.S. involvement in Washington. But Liberia is an African problem for Africans to resolve.

Thus, Mr. Bush returned from his African safari with a full plate, if the trip is to become a meaningful step in a U.S. policy toward Africa. If he is serious, his agenda should now include full funding of the AIDS commitment, development of measures to somehow help African agricultural production in spite of U.S. protection of its own farmers, full funding of the Millennium Challenge Account, and a measured, unstampeded approach to Liberia and other ongoing trouble spots in Africa.

Most of this is difficult. But none of it is impossible.



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