Politics & Policy

A Continent Bleeds

Taking Africa — and our responsibilities — seriously.

Throw a dart at a map of Sub-Saharan Africa. Assuming you don’t hit a remote wilderness, you will doubtless hit an area of the world where: AIDS is rampant, extreme hunger prevalent, corruption endemic, animal species endangered, and so on. (Before I go much further, please spare me the indignant e-mail saying, “What about the prosperous and peace-loving people of Botswana!?!” There will be plenty of stuff further down to get indignant about. Indeed, further disclosure: This ain’t a funny column.)

Africa is a mess. It is a mess by any civilized measure of human progress. It is a mess by most uncivilized measures of human progress. If you do not think so, you are plagued by a paternalistic and racist notion of what progress is.

In Sierra Leone, children have had their arms lopped off by rebels. These mass amputations took place while the United States bombed Kosovo. South Africa is so besieged by rapists that celebrities are cutting public-service ads asking young men to refrain. In Zimbabwe, the government has declared war on white farmers who produce most of the food for the country. In nation after nation, warlords and rebel generals harass and murder by the thousands — motivated by no discernible ideology except clannish ambition, cruelty, and greed. There has been a holocaust rolling across Africa for decades, and nobody cares.

By my rough calculation, AIDS and malaria kill more Africans in one year than handguns have “killed” Americans in the history of the US. Half of all Zambians are expected to eventually die from AIDS. Somewhere between 13% and 50% of Zambian children have been orphaned by the disease. One of the reasons that Africa has such high infection rates is that many African men believe they can be cured of the disease by having sex with a young virgin. Just last month South Africa’s President, Thabo Mbeki, wrote a letter to world leaders claiming that AIDS was a “uniquely African” catastrophe and therefore rich white nations had no right to denounce his country’s “alternative” treatments. Even in the few countries where murder, mayhem, and disease are “under control,” corruption and poverty are staples of everyday life.


Conservatives have been enjoying a healthy debate for the last few years on something called “American Greatness.” The idea, mostly pushed by our friends at The Weekly Standard, is a fairly amorphous notion that America should do big things to fulfill its destiny, and conservatives should not shy from the idea that government must do these big things. Libertarians and economic conservatives have been very fond of teeing off on this idea, largely because the Greatness crowd is at pains to offer some good examples of what these big things would be. Most of the things they suggest were already done by Teddy Roosevelt or Andrew Jackson. Unfortunately, greatness conservatives are slow to realize that we do not live in an age where we need another department of agriculture, some more land-grant colleges, or a push to bust the trusts. This obvious fact often has the result of making these guys sound more like troublemakers. (They like to invoke “creative destruction” a lot. What the “creative” part describes is To Be Announced, but the “destruction” part is largely a euphemism for the Republican party.) One putative Greatness Conservative is Charles Krauthammer. He recently made a powerful case in The Weekly Standard for sending men to Mars. I agree with Krauthammer. Great civilizations create great cathedrals, and the cathedrals of this generation should be in outer space. Cathedrals inspire rich and poor people alike to believe great things are possible. The Mars Polar Lander cost the average American the price of half a cheeseburger. A human lander would cost the average American more — perhaps even ten cheeseburgers! So be it. That is no great sacrifice.

But if great sacrifice is the measure of true greatness, then the answer does not lie on the surface of Mars. One need only look to the area on this planet where it appears time is moving in the wrong direction. The average African is indisputably worse off today than he was thirty or forty years ago. Of what other place can you say such a thing?


Last summer, two teenage boys from Guinea, Yaguine Koita, 14, and Fode Tounkara,15, sneaked into the wheel well of a plane bound for Europe. These boys wanted a better life in the North. They never got it. They froze to death in 55-degrees-below-zero weather at 35,000 feet. But they had carried a letter, stuffed under their layers of clothes, written in the eventuality of their death. ’’Excellencies, Messrs. members and officials of Europe,” they began. “…. if you see that we have sacrificed and risked our lives, it is because there is too much suffering in Africa and we need you to struggle against poverty and put an end to war in Africa.” The handwriting was poor and the grammar even worse but the humility of the plea was powerful. ‘’Finally, we appeal to you to excuse us very, very much for daring to write this letter to the great personages to whom we owe much respect…” These boys did not want the world to forget Africa as it moved on its merry way to the 21st century. Alas, that’s exactly what seems to be happening.

The letter set off a heated debate in Europe about the obligations of colonialists to their former colonies. So be it, that’s a good argument to have. But a better argument for the United States would be, Why aren’t we doing anything at all — aside from the usual pointless foreign aid? You could plot a near perfect graph of American aid going up and Africa’s indicators going down.

It seems foreign policy is up for grabs these days. The Buchananites and other isolationists on the Left and Right make the case that America has no obligation to make the world a better place. The internationalists on the Left argue for more cookie-pusher organizations which only serve to transfer American tax dollars to corrupt dictators and feeble bureaucrats. The internationalist Right has some good rhetoric — shining city on a hill always works for me — but they are hard-pressed to lose their Cold War baggage. And for all their gusto, it’s a rare case for a conservative to be more hawkish than the Clinton administration.

I know America is supposed to be a “reluctant Empire”; we don’t want to rule the world. That’s a good thing. But throwing around our “soft power” (Joe Nye’s phrase for our cultural dominance in ideas, films, etc.) isn’t very effective in a continent with medieval poverty and medieval politics. Telling a one-armed orphaned kid with a distended belly and flies on his eyes to embrace the implicit messages in Titanic or Cheers isn’t just stupid, it’s criminal and perhaps evil.


The Left talks about helping Africa, but what they invariably propose is transferring American wealth to the corrupt kleptocrats they meet at symposia and junkets (it’s a phenomenon similar to the crushes American intellectuals developed for Soviet Communist Party members they met at Embassy cocktail parties). Whenever someone proposes something that would either hold kleptocrats accountable or foster real development through markets, someone on the left screams about racism or colonialism. Meanwhile, the Right just doesn’t talk about helping Africa much at all. I think it’s time we revisited the notion of a new kind of Colonialism – though we shouldn’t call it that. I don’t mean ripping off poor countries. I don’t mean setting tribes against one another and paying off corrupt “leaders” to keep down unrest. I mean going in — guns blazing if necessary — for truth and justice. I am quite serious about this. The United States should mount a serious effort to bring civilization (yes, “Civilization”) to those parts of Africa that are in Hobbesian despair. We should enlist any nation, institution or organization — especially multinational corporations and evangelical churches as well as average African citizens — interested in permanently helping Africa join the 21st century. This might mean that Harvard would have to cut back on courses about transgender construction workers. And it might mean that some churches would have to spend more time feeding starving people than pronouncing on American presidential candidates.

We should spend billions upon billions doing it. We should put American troops in harm’s way. We should not be surprised that Americans will die doing the right thing. We should not be squeamish, either, about the fact that (mostly white) Americans will kill some black Africans in the process. Yes, this would be a display of arrogance of historic proportions, even a crusade. But it wouldn’t be a military one. On one hand, this cannot be merely an armed invasion, but on the other hand it must not be some UN initiative which just shuffles poverty around. This would be America and its allies doing right as we see it.

Yes, this would seem imperial, for there would certainly be wars declared against us. French writers would break their pencils in defiance of the American Empire. Kofi Annan would need a pacemaker. Pat Buchanan would move to Canada. But being imperial is not necessarily a bad thing. The British Empire decided unilaterally that the global practice of slavery was a crime against God and man, and they set out to stop it. They didn’t care about the “sovereignty” of other nations when it came to an evil institution. They didn’t care about the “rule of international law,” they made law with the barrel of a cannon.

Recently, we’ve heard a lot from the Left about how great Cuba is because it has free health care. American liberals are perfectly willing to countenance Cuba’s state-sanctioned murder and the abrogation of virtually all civil rights in exchange for free mammograms and tonsillectomies. Ending poverty and hunger — barely — ought to be worth a mighty price for these men and women who spout daily about the right to burn flags and receive government payments for artfully arranged fecal matter. One wonders what they would be willing to accept for African children to grow up with arms and families intact.

As for what conservatives would be willing to accept, I have no idea. But I have a sense quite a few of them will tell me.


The Latest

Is Trump buckable? &c.

Is Trump buckable? &c.

On internal GOP politics; a Chinese artist and the Olympics; Ukraine and its right to exist; Joan Didion and other Buckley-hired talents; and more.