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Editorial: Out of Africa / Mr. Bush's trip is positive but challenges remain

Tuesday, July 15, 2003

President Bush has just completed a week's visit to Africa, his first. The American attention to the continent that his trip represents is all positive. The longer-term impact will come in Mr. Bush's delivery on promises and attention to Africa's grave problems, which remain to be seen.

There has been grousing about the trip on two counts. The first is that he went to "easy" countries, such as Senegal, Nigeria, Uganda, Botswana and South Africa, which are reasonably successful, as opposed to the continent's basket cases. We would say, so what?

There is sense in paying closer attention -- rewarding -- countries that are on the right track politically and economically. It is also consistent with the Bush administration's regional approach to African issues -- putting primary responsibility for African countries' problems on neighboring countries and consulting on problems with stronger countries such as Nigeria and South Africa.

It also has been suggested that Mr. Bush visited Africa in quest of African-American votes in the 2004 elections. We would again say, what American president doesn't keep concerns of potential voters in mind as he carries out even U.S. foreign policy? Again, the attention he showed to the problems of sub-Saharan Africa, with a population of 800 million, is the real point.

There are significant problems in carrying out even Mr. Bush's relatively modest African policy. One of the major elements is the attention he is showing to the global problem of AIDS, for which he has promised $15 billion over the next five years. The Republican-controlled Congress would do well not to betray him on this promise. It is showing signs of doing so as it edges toward eking out $2 billion rather than $3 billion for the first year. Mr. Bush needs to smack them down on this one.

A second issue is the general, logical economic-commercial approach that is the cornerstone of the Bush administration's policy in Africa. It is based on a long-term strategy that says African countries will never be able to stand on their own two feet -- free of having to ask constantly for humanitarian relief to meet disasters and financial aid for development -- until they build economies that provide for reliable export earnings.

The problem Mr. Bush's administration faces in carrying out that policy is of its own making. Africa exports agricultural products. America, the European Union and Japan have in place formidable protection for their own agricultural production that makes African countries virtually unable to compete. In the case of the United States, the Bush administration passed in 2002 a farm bill that included $100 billion in subsidies to American agriculture.

In the area of aid, quite rightly to be directed to African countries that clean up their act in terms of corruption and other barriers to efficient production, is Mr. Bush's Millennium Challenge Account. In principle, it will make $1.3 billion available next year to African and other countries that qualify. In practice, the Republican-controlled Congress is currently gnawing away at that to bring it down to $800 million. Again, Mr. Bush needs to use his own substantial political capital to crack the whip on Congress.

The fourth challenge to the Bush administration's policy in Africa, as highlighted by the trip, is how it deals with political disaster areas -- failed states, if you will -- such as Liberia and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Many observers and many African players are currently sawing on the administration to intervene militarily in Liberia to restore order, based on a range of to some degree dubious arguments. A decision is expected from Washington in the coming days.

We continue to believe the United States should do no more than provide air and logistical support to West African regional troops put in Liberia to do the job. U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, a West African himself, is apparently arguing in Washington for more extensive U.S. involvement. We continue to see Liberia as an African problem, primarily for Africans to resolve.

Thus, Mr. Bush returns from his African safari with a full plate, if the trip is to become a serious step in a U.S. policy toward Africa. If he is serious, his agenda should now include full funding of the AIDS commitment, development of measures to somehow help African agricultural production in spite of U.S. protection of its own farmers, full funding of the Millennium Challenge Account and a measured, unstampeded approach to Liberia and other ongoing trouble spots in Africa.

Most of this is difficult. None of it is impossible, given will and energy.

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