By Tony Lang
The Cincinnati Enquirer
Sub-Sahara Africa may seem a long way from New York's "Ground Zero" or terrorist hideouts in Afghanistan, but President Bush's trip this week connected those strategic dots - and more. Bush has powerful strategic reasons for stepping up America's engagement with Africa, besides his humanitarian, political and trade motives.
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Yes, his five-nation tour of Senegal, Uganda, Nigeria, South Africa and Botswana was partly designed to show the world America's compassionate side, after Iraq. And as the first Republican president to visit Africa, Bush certainly wouldn't mind if this trip wins him more African- American votes in the 2004 elections. It's also a shrewd maneuver to apply domestic pressure this week on congressional committees debating whether to fully appropriate the billions Bush promised to help AIDS-wracked Africa. But he also went to Africa because of Sept. 11: He might not even have gone, had it not been for the ulterior motive of strengthening the war against terrorism.
Anyone who cares about securing Americans at home or abroad from international terrorists ought to care about helping Africa, the world's poorest continent. Although it hosts 13 percent of the Earth's population, Africa accounts for only about 1.5 percent of world trade. Yet the continent is rich in natural resources, including oil, gold and uranium. Africa supplies about 18 percent of U.S. oil exports; increased production could help reduce U.S. dependence on Mideast oil. Africa's wealth and its poverty both make it a major "playground" for terrorists.
We fought two wars since Sept. 11, 2001, one in Afghanistan, the other in Iraq, to deny terrorists or terrorist regimes safe havens to conspire against us. But three years before the 9/11 attacks, terrorists already struck against us in East Africa, at U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania.
We learned as long ago as 1993, when 18 U.S. soldiers were killed in Somalia, that peacekeeping in Africa can't be done with token forces. We've learned since 9/11 we can't win the war on terrorism with brute force alone, that we need to win the minds and hearts of people, and deny terrorists the easy pickings. That applies to Africa as much as to the Middle East.
It's not just denying terrorists havens where they can set up training camps. Somalia gunmen fought alongside the Taliban against U.S. troops in Afghanistan. Corrupt governments with dirt-poor, disease-ravaged populations breed ready recruits for terrorist networks. That's why Bush this week visited Africa's most progressive nations, with governments that can serve as role models for fighting corruption, poverty and disease.
Sub-Saharan Africa is 40 percent Muslim. Hate-filled, pseudo-Islamic terrorists on the run in the Mideast have turned their attention southward. Terrorist groups often rely on the illegal drug trade to finance attacks and launder money, and can find willing collaborators in some African states' chaotic conditions. African diamonds and gold have helped finance wars and terrorist strikes. Last September, FBI Director Robert Mueller said al-Qaida terrorists have shifted much of their wealth from cash to gold and other commodities to keep U.S. agents from tracing it.
Jamie Drummond, executive director of the Africa-advocacy group DATA (www.datadata.org) , also warns of "the Lord of the Flies scenario." AIDS has so ravaged adult populations in some African nations that children are bringing up children. Botswana's HIV/AIDS rate is highest in the world - about 40 percent. Gun-toting child warriors, some on drugs, are common in African guerrilla armies. "We don't know how this Lord of the Flies scenario will play out," Drummond said.
U.S. strategic aid money in the past often enriched corrupt African leaders. There's cause for hope in Bush's new Millennial Challenge Account that channels aid only to governments cracking down on corruption and adopting democratic systems and free markets. U.S. AIDS relief will work chiefly through non-government organizations (NGOs) and church groups like Catholic Charities.
Relief groups have learned even blanket debt forgiveness can backfire, if it simply allows regimes to dodge reform. Africa spends more on repaying debt ($14.5 billion) than it receives in foreign aid ($12.7 billion). African leaders are being enlisted into a New Partnership for African Development including a peer review mechanism to put collective pressure on pariahs such as Liberia's President Charles Taylor and Zimbabwe's President Robert Mugabe.
Irish rocker Bono, who visited the Enquirer editorial board last December on behalf of Africa's AIDS victims, says the United States has been too absent on the continent. He urges better "American brand management" there to counter anti-American sentiment. Bush was out working the territory this week, and European nations are following his lead with promised aid. But even a year ago, Bush spoke with more than brand-manager fervor about the billions he promised. "I carry this commitment in my soul," he said.
Spoken like a president who understands that African - and American - lives could depend on it.
Was President Bush's trip to Africa this past week successful? What did it accomplish? Send us your reactions in a letter, 200 words or less, to Bush/Africa, Enquirer Editorial Page, 312 Elm St., Cincinnati, Ohio 45202, fax (513) 768-8610, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org. Include your name, address, neighborhood and a daytime phone.
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