Friday, January 09, 2004

AlterNet - Bush as the Real African President

Let me start off by saying that I never read AlterNet, as I don't consider it amongst my list of "respectable" left-wing sites worth visiting. Nevertheless, someone brought my attention to this article which I found intriguing, and I thought it my duty to share this deviation from left-wing orthodoxy with my readership.

Is George Bush the first president to give Africa the attention it deserves? Given Bush's poor standing among African-American voters, such a claim sounds strange. Nine out of ten African Americans voted for Bush's opponents in the last election – and are likely to do the same in the next. But while Democrats are the party of African Americans, Bush is proving that the Republicans are the party of Africa.

Bush's interest in Africa, the poorest region of the world, is profoundly surprising – and not the least to Africans who realize that the America's war on terrorism has distracted attention and money from the region's pressing problems of civil war, HIV/AIDS and chronic under-development. Yet Bush's engagement in Africa may well overshadow in significance the other foreign activities of his presidency.

How is this possible? Won't Bush be best remembered for his pursuit of terrorists? He is, after all, the President who overthrew the Taliban in Afghanistan. He invaded Iraq and deposed Saddam Hussein. He called for the spread of democracy in the Muslim world, giving tacit encouragement to dissenters in Egypt and Pakistan – the most important American client-states, whose de facto military dictators are truly puppets of Washington [if this is true, why does Egypt have a "cold peace" with Israel? Why has Pakistani nuclear knowhow found its way to places like North Korea and Libya?].

Yet Bush's most publicized – and dubious – actions on the world stage may prove his most ephemeral. Afghanistan and Iraq may return to their historic arc no matter Bush's insistence that freedom is another name for the casual tyranny and relentless chaos of a failed state. Bush's promotion of what he calls "democracy" is likely to be a spectacular failure if only because the president is committed to defending those dictators that do his bidding or at least pretend to. And Bush's war on terror, if it continues to prove inconclusive, will be ultimately discarded, replaced by a more pliable concept such as "peaceful co-existence."

Bush's interest on Africa, by contrast, May contain the seeds of a significant legacy – by virtue of his decision to give Africa the most sustained attention by any president since James Monroe nearly 200 years ago imagined re-colonizing parts of the "dark continent" with freed slaves.

In the 1800s, the U.S. generally ignored sub-Saharan Africa, merely observing Europe's dominance over the region. The U.S. played a small role even the de-colonization of Africa in the late 1950s and early 1960s, when the creation of dozens of independent black African nations helped fuel the civil rights movement.

During the Cold War – the period of fierce rivalry with the Soviet Union, from the late 1940s until the end of the 1980s – U.S. intervention in sub-Saharan Africa was destructive and largely concerned with limiting Soviet influence in the region. Americans respected and even pandered to Europe's need to continue its economic exploitation of Africa.

With the collapse of the Soviet Union, the U.S. lost all strategic interest in Africa. War raged throughout the sub-continent and the U.S. did nothing. Inaction proved most shameful in Rwanda, where some have argued that with a small show of soldiers on the ground in 1994, the U.S. could have prevented the massacre of hundreds of people. Less famously, the U.S. failure to intervene in Liberia led to the bloody collapse of this former colony of American slaves. To be sure, the U.S. sent troops to Somalia, but poor planning led to a humiliating scene of a dead American soldier dragged through the streets of a Somali city.

Neither the first President Bush nor President Bill Clinton ever found a reason to engage Africa that went beyond empty rhetoric. To be sure, Clinton visited Africa (the first president ever to do so) and remains popular with Africans. But Africa suffered on Clinton's watch, falling further behind the rest of the world in almost every measure of health, education and wealth.

The story is different under the second President Bush. He has called for increased funding to fight AIDS, and his visit to Africa in July 2003 underscored his desire to integrate Africa into his war on terror. Despite scant evidence of Al Qaeda operatives at work in the sub-Saharan, the region is now blithely described as "the new front in the war on terror" by no less authority than the august New York think-tank, the Council on Foreign Relations.


The U.S. role in resolving the civil war in Sudan may give Africans – and Bush's domestic critics – another reason to consider Bush worthy of the name "African president." A country essentially split between Arab Muslims in the north and black Christians in the south, Sudan won independence from the British in 1956 and has seen civil war for nearly its entire history.


As a bridge between Islam and Christianity, Sudan is a flashpoint for conflict – and a test case for the how Bush administration plans to peacefully manage tensions between these two antagonistic religions in other parts of the world (most notably in Middle East).

Prior to 9/11, President Bush identified the Sudan conflict as perhaps his top foreign policy objective. He selected a former U.S. Senator, John Danforth, to reconcile Sudan's warring regions. Danforth's appointment was announced only days before the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington and was thus immediately eclipsed by these events.

Yet Bush's commitment to resolving the Sudan war endured, if quietly, because right-wing Christians objected to the Arab practice of taking their black southern brethren as slaves. While slavery is not widely practiced by Arabs in Sudan[a highly dubious claim], the practice persists and created the basis for an unlikely alliance between African-Americans, such as Colin Powell and Condoleeza Rice, and the Christian Right.

Secretary of State Powell is central to Bush efforts to end Sudan's civil war and to forge a power-sharing agreement between Arabs and Christians, northerners and southerners. News reports out of Khartoum, Sudan's capital, suggests that Powell and the Americans are on the verge of engineering a breakthrough. In African terms, the resolution of the Sudan war would be a huge achievement, providing hope that Muslim-Christian relations, badly strained in Nigeria and the Ivory Coast, can be eased.


For Bush, Sudan represents a potential trifecta. By creating a peace out of one of Africa's most intractable wars, he satisfies his Bible-thumping domestic supporters, ignites hope among African-American and delivers a victory to his globalist oil friends, who can now pump Sudan's oil without fear of being accused of abetting either a warriors or slavers.

Then there is a fourth prize for Bush in Sudan: a victory in the war on terror. In the early 1990s, Sudan gave refuge to Osama bin-Laden and his gang. President Clinton even ordered an attack on the country in 1998, vainly trying to kill bin-Laden. Al-Quad [sic] is long gone [another bogus claim], but by creating a peace in Sudan, Bush will gain what he wants the most in an election year: another chance to say he's making the world safer, despite the costs in American lives and dollars and despite the evident instability around the world that his policies and actions are generating.

Ignore the cheap shots at "bible thumpers", the attempts at minimizing the severity of Sudanese government's oppression of its' Christian south, and the conspiracy theorizing about "Big Oil" and electoral ambitions - the mere fact that an article on a site like Alternet could even acknowledge that Bush has paid Africa more real attention than Clinton ever did (leaving aside Bush's shameful pandering the domestic agricultural lobby), and what is more, that some measure of good is likely to result from said intervention, is remarkable in itself. If such an admission, however hedged about with caveats and speculation about base motives, can come from such a hard-left source*, it is proof positive that it is indeed true.

Where Africa was concerned, Bill Clinton knew how to look concerned and cry on cue for the cameras, but when push came to shove he turned his back on Rwanda, knowing full well what the consequence of his inattention would be. All that mattered to him at the time was to avoid "another Mogadishu", even if it meant more than half a million people would lose their lives in an utterly preventable massacre. George W. Bush, on the other hand, made no pretence at humanitarian internationalism in his 2000 election campaign, but in office he has done far more to either end tyrannical regimes or to prevent genocide than Clinton did. His intervention in Liberia was certainly tardy and fleeting, but in the end it was enough to avoid all-out war, which is what really matters, not Clintonian photo-opportunities at Goree Island or other such merely symbolic bunkum.

*A cynic might even hypothesize that only by throwing in the odd bit of far-left drivel was the author of this article able to get it past the AlterNet editors; as you all know, however, I am very far from being a cynic ...