July 2, 2003 | Scripps Howard News Service

Into Africa? Why the long-suffering continent matters.

Africa is failing. That's hardly headline news but maybe we can now begin at least to talk seriously about a continent that has been spiraling into chaos.

In the past – for example when I was a New York Times correspondent in Africa in the mid-1980s – it was politically incorrect even to suggest such a thing. The “friends of Africa” in American universities and liberal think tanks insisted that Africa's young nations were making progress, and that it bordered on the racist to suggest otherwise. Any problems that could not be wished away were dismissed as “the legacy of colonialism.” And, of course, the consequence of too little U.S. foreign aid.

Such excuses are no longer sustainable. By now it should be obvious that what plagues Africa is really the legacy of socialism. The first generations of post-independence African leaders were advised by European and American intellectuals (many of them at those universities and think tanks) to forego capitalism in favor of “the socialist path to development.” That has turned out to be a dead end (in millions of cases quite literally). “Bourgeois democracy” also was disdained; Africans got dictatorships instead.

Today, Zimbabwe – once a vibrant nation and a food exporter — suffocates and starves under the heel of a Marxist and truly racist despot. In Congo, ethnic slaughter has killed millions. Cote D'Ivoire, once the “showcase of West Africa” has been shattered. Liberia, never a garden spot, is descending into hell's lower depths. Somalia collapsed long ago. The Islamist regime in Sudan has killed, enslaved and displaced millions of black Christians and animists. One could easily go on.

You might expect the United Nations to step up to the plate – not least because the current secretary-general, Kofi Anna, is himself an African. But Mr. Annan seems to have no ideas. Well, there is this: The staunch opponent of American “unilateralism” is now asking the United States to take charge – and, naturally, pick up the tab.

This month, President Bush is scheduled to spend six days visiting Africa. At a time when America is embroiled in a War against Terrorism on many fronts, is there really any reason for Africa to rise to the top of his to-do list?

Actually, there are three reasons. The first is that we now know that failed nations are apt to become terrorist havens. That's what happened in Afghanistan and Somalia. Collapsed African states will attract Jihadist killer parasites as surely as dying wildebeests attract jackals, vultures and flies. That makes African survival a United States security interest. (In Malawi – where the average citizen makes under $2 a day and life expectancy is less than 37 years –a few days ago police had to use tear-gas and live bullets to disperse Muslim protestors angered by the government's surrender to the U.S. of five al Qaeda suspects.)

Beyond the threat, there is an opportunity: As National Review editor Rich Lowry recently pointed out, West Africa's Gulf of Guinea has the potential to become Saudi Arabia “without the anti-US baggage.” To accomplish that won't necessarily require full-blown nation-building but it will require “military and political engagement toward the goal of stabilizing and liberalizing the region.”

Nigeria, Africa's most populous country and already the world's sixth-largest oil exporter, could be a key – Nigerians tend to be smart, bold and entrepreneurial. But the country has always been a crisis wrapped in confusion inside corruption. And Saudi/Wahhabi mischief is on the rise in the Muslim north. Still, Nigeria is worth some effort. The rewards for success could be great, while the cost of letting Nigeria become a radicalized terrorist base would be enormous.

The third reason to take Africa seriously is humanitarian. The US intervened in Bosnia, Kosovo, Somalia and Haiti because it was the moral thing to do – we had no national security interest whatsoever. We intervened in Afghanistan, Kuwait, and, yes, Iraq because we did have a national security interest – and because it was the moral thing to do. 

But we failed to intervene in Rwanda, Cambodia and too many other places – to our shame. (Those failures should also shame the UN and Europe, but most foreign leaders are so busy bashing America they have no time for self-examination.)

No, the US cannot solve every humanitarian crisis everywhere in the world. But that doesn't imply that we should never confront tyrannies. The world's despots and butchers should receive no such guarantees – not even those in the crippled continent of Africa.

Clifford D. May, a former New York Times foreign correspondent, is president of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, a think tank on terrorism.