When it comes to Africa, most American Presidents have had little interest in the continent and its people. However, over the past several administrations, the Executive Branch has sought increased involvement in African affairs, ranging from humanitarian aid to military support. Former President Bill Clinton is known around the continent for his initiatives aimed at increasing economic growth and development, though his fame is arguably overblown. Oddly enough, for better or for worse, President George W. Bush has engaged more with Africa than any President preceding him. From PEPFAR to AFRICOM, Bush has promoted an American agenda in the African context; a foreign policy that, despite its benefits, has had significant repercussions on the people of Africa.
From February 15th-21st, President Bush visited Benin, Tanzania, Rwanda, Ghana, and Liberia – his second trip to the continent since he took office in 2001. In many ways, the trip resembled a victory lap. He touted the achievements of his administration in combating HIV/AIDS through the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR), preventing malaria, and increasing the development capacity of African governments through the Millennium Challenge Account and education initiatives. He made speeches about the potential of Africa, about it’s “natural beauty, vibrant culture, and an unmistakable spirit of energy and optimism.”
Unfortunately, it seems that Bush’s showcase of successes in Africa may be nothing more than an attempt to find a legacy that is worth remembering. At the head of an administration mired in international blunders, he is trying to show that not all of his foreign policy choices have been flawed and that despite all of the bad, he has done some good, too. But the tangible benefits he has bestowed upon the people of Africa must be placed in the context of his broader policies in Africa. The spirit of generosity and kindness that he exhibited during his trip is as difficult to come to terms with as his seemingly blind vision of the realities in the Middle East.
Bush’s legacy of benevolence is tainted by the motives of his anti-terrorism, go-it-alone attitude toward the world. Yes, PEPFAR has provided $15 billion worth of medication and supplies to fight HIV/AIDS, but at what hidden cost? Many argue that PEPFAR was simply created as a way to avoid contributing to the Global Fund for HIV/AIDS, Malaria, and TB and to allow Bush to push his own agenda of prevention rather than treatment. Though such policy does not negate the positive impacts of PEPFAR, it does offer a small window into the way Bush has viewed Africa and the way in which he pursues American interests on the continent.
A much more revealing example of Bush’s attitude toward Africa is the establishment of AFRICOM. As you well know from past issues of Around Africa, the new military command aims to increase development under the Department of Defense and to train African militaries such that the US can “help Africans help themselves.” During the Cold War, large sums of money were poured into military training and capacity-building on the African continent, often at the expense of African civilians. It is a policy that ultimately failed to create stability in Africa and yet Bush has resumed such financing under the auspices of a Global War on Terror.
The U.S.-backed invasion of Somalia by Ethiopia is the most striking example of the overreach of American military might, but the list is long. The United States awards millions of dollars annually to the Rwandan government despite the fact that President Paul Kagame continues to fuel General Laurent Nkunda’s human rights abusive rebel movement in Eastern D.R. Congo. In Uganda, the US is conducting what is labeled “peacekeeping” training and is in fact counter-insurgency training. For fiscal year 2009, President Bush has requested that Congress approve approximately $1.3 billion worth of bilateral military programs relating to Africa, including the construction of an AFRICOM headquarters in Stuttgart, Germany.
Despite the rhetoric of development and partnership during his trip to Africa, President Bush has clearly militarized relations with African governments. Before Bush left for Africa, AFJN contributed to a press call that highlighted, among other things, the increased focus on the military under the Bush administration. AFJN Staff members Bahati Ntama Jacques and Beth Tuckey also wrote articles entitled “The US ‘War on Terror’ Exported to Rwanda: A Threat to Peace in the DRC” and “Beyond AFRICOM: Toward a New Concept of Security” in response to Bush’s trip to the continent. Both can be found on the AFJN website.
Clearly, Bush has done good things for the people of Africa, as evidenced in his approval rating there (it is among the highest in the world at an average of 80%). But the double-standard of promoting health and democracy while at the same time undermining the progress of stability across the continent cannot be reconciled. If Bush truly wants to leave a positive legacy in Africa, he ought to invest in initiatives that bring about peace and stability without involvement from the military.
By Beth Tuckey