June 13, 2011 | World Defense Review

Mr. Bush Goes to Africa

Next week, President Bush, accompanied by his wife, Laura, will embark on a five-country tour across the African continent, with stops planned in Benin, Tanzania, Rwanda, Ghana, and Liberia. While cynics will undoubtedly dismiss the visit as another case of a lame duck president using forays abroad to escape troubles at home, the fact is that America's current engagement with Africa will likely go down as one of the most significant, if largely unheralded, legacies of the Bush presidency. And, rather ironically, it was never supposed to be that way.

As I perhaps rather indelicately recalled six months ago during my testimony before the House Subcommittee on Africa and Global Health, while campaigning for the Republican presidential nomination in 2000, George W. Bush responded negatively to a question from PBS's Jim Lehrer about whether Africa fit into his definition of the strategic interests of the United States: “At some point in time the president's got to clearly define what the national strategic interests are, and while Africa may be important, it doesn't fit into the national strategic interests, as far as I can see them.” One year ago, almost seven years to the day after that NewsHour interview, it was announced that President Bush had decided to establish a new unified combatant command, Africa Command (AFRICOM), directing the Department of Defense to stand up the new structure by October 2008. According to the February 6, 2007 White House press release, AFRICOM's mission would be to “enhance our efforts to bring peace and security to the people of Africa and promote our common goals of development, health, education, democracy, and economic growth in Africa” by strengthening bilateral and multilateral security cooperation with African states and creating new opportunities to bolster their capabilities.

One the most distinguished Africanists in the American foreign policy establishment, Ambassador Princeton N. Lyman, who served as U.S. envoy to South Africa and to Nigeria as well as Assistant Secretary of State for International Organizations, observed, while Bush's 2000 put-down of Africa may have been disappointing, it nonetheless reflected “what had in fact been the approach of both Democratic and Republican administrations for decades.” Historically, with the exception of Cold War period when concerns about Soviet attempts to secure a foothold on the continent drove U.S. policymakers to pay greater attention to the continent, America generally perceived Africa as secondary to its foreign policy and other strategic objectives. Thus, more often than not, American perspectives on Africa were framed almost exclusively in terms of preoccupation over the humanitarian consequences of poverty, war, and natural disaster. Alas, as noble as these moral impulses have been, they lacked the “staying power” needed to sustain a long-term commitment.

The achievement of the Bush administration is that, despite the understandably subdued expectations of Africanists when it entered office, it has actually reset U.S. relations with Africa on a solid strategic basis, charting the course for even greater engagement by whoever is inaugurated next January as the forty-fourth president of the United States.

Broadly conceived, there are four areas in which Africa's significance for America – or at least the public acknowledgment thereof – has been amplified in recent years. The first is the continent's role in the “Global War on Terror” and the potential, as I noted in my broad assessment of the theatre at the beginning of this year, of Africa's poorly governed spaces to provide facilitating environments, recruits, and eventual targets for Islamist terrorists who threaten Western interests in general and those of the United States in particular. In fact, in some regions like the Horn of Africa and Sahel, this has already become reality. The second important consideration is Africa's abundant natural resources, particularly those in its burgeoning energy sector, the importance of which to the international community in general and the United States in particular has increased considerably in the past few year and whose vulnerabilities, as I argued last year, represent a major threat to American national security. The third area motivating the reappraisal of Africa's strategic significance is the recognition of the role that the continent is playing in China's rapid rise to great power status and, as I noted just last week, Beijing's role in enabling rogue regimes in Africa. The fourth impulse is the humanitarian concern for the devastating toll which conflict, poverty, and disease, especially HIV/AIDS, continue to exact in Africa.

While the Bush administration's 2003 National Strategy for Combating Terrorism correctly argued that terrorist organizations have little in common with the poor and destitute, it also acknowledged that terrorists can exploit these socio-economic conditions to their advantage. In his 2005 address on the occasion of the United Nations' sixtieth anniversary, President Bush went on to note:

    We must defeat the terrorists on the battlefield, and we must also defeat them in the battle of ideas. We must change the conditions that allow terrorists to flourish and recruit, by spreading the hope of freedom to millions who've never known it. We must help raise up the failing states and stagnant societies that provide fertile ground for the terrorists. We must defend and extend a vision of human dignity, and opportunity, and prosperity – a vision far stronger than the dark appeal of resentment and murder. To spread a vision of hope, the United States is determined to help nations that are struggling with poverty.

The Bush administration has made combating HIV/AIDS on the continent a priority with twelve of the fifteen focus countries in the President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) being in Africa, including Botswana, Côte d'Ivoire, Ethiopia, Kenya, Mozambique, Namibia, Nigeria, Rwanda, South Africa, Tanzania, Uganda, and Zambia. With a five-year, $15 billion price tag, PEPFAR, announced in 2003, has been largest commitment ever by any nation for an international health initiative dedicated to a single disease. Through the program, so far more than 1.4 million people have received antiretroviral treatment, with a special emphasis on the preventing infant infections by reaching privileging pregnant women. Last week, in his final State of the Union address, one of the few concrete foreign policy proposals made by the president was an appeal for PEPFAR: “We can bring healing and hope to many more. So I ask you to maintain the principles that have changed behavior and made this program a success. And I call on you to double our initial commitment to fighting HIV/AIDS by approving an additional $30 billion over the next five years.”

The Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC), established in 2004, is perhaps the Bush administration's most innovative contribution with regard to foreign aid. MCC's Millennium Challenge Account provides assistance to qualifying countries for “compact agreements” to fund specific programs targeted at reducing poverty and stimulating economic growth as well as “threshold programs” to improve performance with an eye toward achieving “compact” status. A full half of the forty countries worldwide currently eligible for some MCC funding, either through the “Threshold Program” or “Compact Assistance,” are in Africa, including four of the five countries on next week's presidential trip (Benin, Tanzania, Rwanda, and Ghana).

One of the key advantages of the MCC approach is the recognition that generous grants of development aid are for naught if the recipients lacked a democratic polity and basic capacity for good governance. It should be recalled that until fairly recently, while most African states were characterized by some form authoritarian rule, with only two out of the fifty-three members of the African Union (AU), Botswana and Mauritius, able to boast of uninterrupted democratic politics since independence. By linking eligibility for MCC assistance to demonstrated commitment to policies that promote political and economic freedom, investments in education and health, control of corruption, and respect for civil liberties and the rule of law by performing well on seventeen different policy indicators, the administration put into practice what Nobel Laureate-economist Amartya Sen had long argued, “Developing and strengthening a democratic system is an essential component of the process of development.” Not surprisingly, President Bush drew bipartisan applause during the State of Union address both for his assertion that “we've also changed the way we deliver aid by launching the Millennium Challenge Account” and for his call to Congress to fully fund this program that “strengthens democracy, transparency, and the rule of law in developing nations.”

Over the long term, trade offers an opportunity for Africa to experience sustained economic growth by leveraging its comparative advantage of low labor costs as a step toward integrating into the global marketplace The Bush administration, working with Congress, has consolidated the comprehensive trade and investment policy for Africa introduced by its predecessor in the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) of 2000, which substantially lowered commercial barriers with the United States and allowed Sub-Saharan African countries to qualify for trade benefits such as having goods from their nascent manufacturing sectors imported into the United States tariff-free. As a direct result of AGOA, for example, since 2001 Africa's garment exports to America have increased sevenfold. Furthermore, the Overseas Private Investment Corporation (OPIC), an independent U.S. government agency, has provided debt financing through its “Africa Capital Markets Fund” in an effort mobilized the private sector in support of up to $800 million in new additional investment on the continent.

Of course, there is a strong element of self-interest in all this. As the most recent iteration of the National Security Strategy of the United States of America, a document which identified the international counterterrorism effort as the country's top national security priority, affirmed, “Africa holds growing geo-strategic importance and is a high priority of this Administration.” However, the 2006 document also went out of its way to state that “our security depends on partnering with Africans.” AFRICOM's establishment is not only America's response to the more strategic view of Africa in terms of U.S. national interests which policymakers and analysts have come around to adopting, it also represents an acknowledgement that, independent of the interests and actions of external powers like the United States, Africans themselves have increasingly expressed the desire and, more importantly, demonstrated the political will, to tackle the continent's myriad challenges of disease, poverty, ethnic tension, religious extremism, bad governance, and overall lack of security, although they still need outside assistance to do so.

As senior Pentagon officials like Principal Deputy Under Secretary of Defense for Policy Ryan Henry have repeatedly emphasized, that “the goal is for AFRICOM not be a U.S. leadership role on the continent but rather to be supporting the indigenous leadership efforts that are currently going on…[to] support the leadership from different nations and that of the AU and the regional economic communities that are there and the security capabilities that they provide…to complement rather that compete with any leadership efforts currently going on.” Implicit in this is the recognition of the nexus which exists between security and development. As Sean McFate, a policy analyst who previously served as an officer with the 82nd Airborne Division, notes in an essay for the current issue of Military Review, while “AFRICOM's mission should not be development, the failure of development may well drive AFRICOM's mission.”

It is the recognition that a deep commonality exists between America's strategic interests and the interests of Africans in enhanced security, stability, and development and a holistic approach is needed to achieve both objectives. Republican presidential candidate Senator John McCain is right on when, in a recent essay for Foreign Affairs subtitled “Securing America's Future,” he pledged to build upon the strategic engagements with Africa begun under the Bush Administration:

    Africa's problems – poverty, corruption, disease, and instability – are well known. Less discussed is the promise offered by many countries on that continent. My administration will seek to engage on a political, economic, and security level with friendly governments across Africa. Many African nations will not reach their true potential without external assistance to combat the entrenched problems, such as HIV/AIDS, that afflict Africans disproportionately. I will establish the goal of eradicating malaria – the number one killer of African children under the age of five – on the continent. In addition to saving millions of lives in the world's poorest regions, such a campaign would do much to add luster to America's image in the world. These and other efforts, including enhancing trade and investment, would assist Africans in sparking a renaissance that would enable the continent's people to achieve their potential.

Thus it is quite appropriate that President Bush should begin his last twelve months in office with a journey across the African continent where a new framework for relations with the United States is being built, a structure whose very existence – however unlikely it would have seemed at the beginning – his presidency has done a great deal to bring about. As a result of this commitment, as I told Congress last year:

    We have a historical opportunity to partner with the region in a meaningful way – if we get the terms of the engagement right. However, it is already evident that the challenges we, Americans and Africans, face together neither lend themselves to quick fixes nor promise all that many immediate results. Rather, they demand for a steady approach and sustained commitment to the pursuit of long-term strategic objectives which will secure legitimate U.S. national interests as well as advance the interests of our African partners – irrespective of transitions in administration, shifts of economic indicators, or changes to international or national perceptions of priorities.

— J. Peter Pham is Director of the Nelson Institute for International and Public Affairs at James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Virginia. He is also an adjunct fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies in Washington, D.C., as well as Vice President of the Association for the Study of the Middle East and Africa (ASMEA). In addition to the study of terrorism and political violence, his research interests lie at the intersection of international relations, international law, political theory, and ethics, with particular concentrations on the implications for United States foreign policy and African states as well as religion and global politics.

Dr. Pham is the author of over two hundred essays and reviews on a wide variety of subjects in scholarly and opinion journals on both sides of the Atlantic and the author, editor, or translator of over a dozen books. Among his recent publications are Liberia: Portrait of a Failed State (Reed Press, 2004), which has been critically acclaimed by Foreign Affairs, Worldview, Wilson Quarterly, American Foreign Policy Interests, and other scholarly publications, and Child Soldiers, Adult Interests: The Global Dimensions of the Sierra Leonean Tragedy (Nova Science Publishers, 2005).

In addition to serving on the boards of several international and national think tanks and journals, Dr. Pham has testified before the U.S. Congress and conducted briefings or consulted for both Congressional and Executive agencies. He is also a frequent contributor to National Review Online's military blog, The Tank.

Read in World Defense Review