The Blog

Into Africa

Bush's rhetoric matches the reality.

11:00 PM, Feb 19, 2008 • By JOSEPH LOCONTE
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Corruption remains a problem, which is why the administration has linked foreign aid and trade to tangible reform through its Millennium Challenge Account. Problems persist, but, for the first time as a matter of U.S. policy, the Agency for International Development is prepared to withhold assistance until there are improvements in governance and economic freedom. Meanwhile, PEPFAR is targeting local, community-based groups over large, bureaucratic aid organizations. Last year nearly nine out of ten of the 2,200 organizations engaged were home-grown. It's all beginning to look like a revolution in America's approach to the developing world.

Is it really conceivable that the world's military and economic superpower should refuse to take any interest in the fate of Africa--when it has the capacity to act? As Bush put it during his stop in Rwanda: "It is irresponsible for nations to whom much has been given to sit on the sidelines when young babies are dying because of mosquito bites." America's example, in fact, has prodded G8 nations to step up their own commitments to help, yet another reminder that hardly any crisis in the world can be tackled without U.S. leadership. Yes, federal spending and budget deficits are massive problems. But they're not likely to be solved by a nation unmoved by the suffering and degradation of millions.

The claim that Africa has little to do with U.S strategic interests looks increasingly naïve. Scholars such as Philip Jenkins warn of a "cultural and religious confrontation" as Muslim populations compete with Christians and other groups for natural resources and religious influence. Can it really be unimportant that no other region of the world produces as many child soldiers and AIDS orphans as Africa? We know that al Qaeda and its allies thrive on the social chaos of failed states. We know that wherever Sharia law takes hold, extremism is bound to follow. Osama bin Laden, after all, plied his trade of terror while receiving sanctuary in the war-torn, Islamic dictatorship of Sudan.

Which brings us to the other group that bristles at Bush's Africa policy: radical Islamists. Since the attacks of 9/11, Muslim leaders (and their liberal sympathizers) have accused the United States of waging a "war on Islam." Conspiracy theories abound. The leader of the Muslim Brotherhood in Sudan, for example, claims that Americans "are behind all the tragedies that are taking place in Darfur." Bush's AIDS initiative must be part of the same subversive plot.

Perhaps the Islamists realize a fact completely overlooked by the Western media: A sizeable swath of the people being reached through PEPFAR are . . . Muslims. Many of the nations receiving assistance--Ethiopia, Kenya, Nigeria, Tanzania, Uganda--have significant Islamic populations. Scores of faith-based NGOs in these countries, including Catholic and evangelical, reach out to Muslims in need. Churches and mosques sometimes work together to help families in crisis. In Ivory Coast, U.S. officials joined imams at the nation's largest mosque for their first public discussion of HIV/AIDS. All of this is bad PR for al Qaeda Incorporated.

Bush's Africa trip culminates what surely ranks as the most principled, sustained, and strategic commitment to the African continent of any Western leader in memory. What a contrast to the Clinton years. There was no suggestion that failed states might present a security threat, no serious attempt to tackle the AIDS pandemic or develop a coherent foreign assistance program. When President Clinton made a trip to Ghana, tens of thousands rushed to greet him, but what came of it? As one observer put it, "the optics were astonishing." His policies were less so. Two images of Africa remain forever associated with the Clinton White House: the humiliating retreat of U.S. Marines from Somalia (which emboldened Osama bin Laden) and the shameful paralysis over the genocide in Rwanda.

It is too early to tell what George Bush's legacy in Africa will amount to; civil wars and political corruption stand ready to crush advances toward democracy and economic growth. But, by any rational measure, an untold deluge of human suffering already has been averted. The story of Kabanyana Renatha from Rwanda, for example, is becoming increasingly common. Kabanyana believes she lost two children to the disease before realizing she was HIV positive. She started getting treatment at the Masaka Health Center while she was pregnant with her seventh child. Her daughter, Clissa Uwimana, is now two-and-a-half years old and HIV-negative. "I feel strong, and I hope to raise my kids until they finish their school," she says. "I have hope for their future."