President Bush today concludes a five-country, six-day trip to Africa, and perhaps the most fascinating aspect of the press coverage has consisted of the incredulous observation that, if I may paraphrase, there are people who actually like George W. Bush.
Indeed, there seem to be many. When told in a pre-departure interview with BBC’s Matt Frei that his approval ratings in the countries he’d visit were in the mid-80s, the president smiled but dismissed the flattery, saying polls “were nothing more than a puff of air.”
Once in Africa, the flattery was laid on thicker. Thousands flocked to see Bush at an airport where he would stay for his entire three-hour refueling stop in Benin, an obscure sliver of land in West Africa. During this time, Bush signed a $300 million grant with his counterpart, Yayi Boni, who in turn proclaimed it to be George W. Bush Day and decorated the POTUS with a glimmering red sash.
That afternoon, as Air Force One touched down on the other side of the continent, everyday life in Tanzania’s largest city, Dar es Salaam, ground to a halt. Tens of thousands, bedecked in flags, some wearing clothes depicting Bush, thronged the roads to see his motorcade. Over a state dinner, Bush declared himself to be “extremely touched, as [was] Laura, by the outpouring of support by the great people of Tanzania.” A day into the warm reception, Bush had eased into his characteristic folksiness. He even greeted a crowd in vernacular Swahili — “Vipi mambo,” Bush said, the equivalent of saying “Wassup?” to an English-speaker.
The theme of amazement at Bush’s African popularity has surfaced in coverage from the Washington Post and the New York Times. Kim McLarin of “The Root,” an African-American website that follows happenings on “The Continent,” just could not bring herself to grasp Liberians’ fondness for Bush:
Abu, who drove me through the pitted streets of Monrovia and showed me the palaces which various despots built, declared Bush a hero to the Liberian folks.
“You mean George Bush?” I asked. Just to clarify.
“He is a great, great man,” Abu said.
“George W. Bush?”
“We honor him.”
“The president of the United States?”
“He is the most powerful man in the world,” Abu went on, which was not unreasonable. “When he said to Charles Taylor, ‘It’s time to go,’ Taylor went. He saved us more bloodshed.”
In fact, the Bush administration’s record in Africa is lined with these unheralded successes. But obscurity is the name of the African-policymaking game. Even a momentous program slips from the American public’s view the day after it is signed into law, not to return until it needs to be reauthorized by Congress.
Such is the case with the centerpiece of Bush’s Africa policy: the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR), from which the countries that Bush toured have all benefited. When enacted in 2003 after being touted as a plank of “compassionate conservatism,” PEPFAR devoted $15 billion over five years to prevent HIV infections and provide treatment to those already infected. Its passage made America the top donor on African AIDS relief overnight. President Bush now proposes to double this amount to $30 billion for a further five years.
There is much to criticize in the approach. Preventing new HIV infections is the only way to win the long-term battle against AIDS in Africa, and there are strong indications that the best-equipped organizations to do this bear little resemblance to the public-health behemoths that jockey for lucrative PEPFAR grants. Rather, they are small, homegrown efforts that induce changes in the behavior of the local population — a topic Helen Epstein explored in her masterful 2007 book, The Invisible Cure.
Still, it is hard to deny some of the raw accomplishments that increased aid has made possible. In total, over 1.3 million people have received the anti-retroviral treatment that works what has been called “The Lazarus Effect” on AIDS sufferers. Under another program, the threat of malaria has been nearly eradicated in a number of places; the Washington Post profiles one small clinic, on the isle of Zanzibar, where the annual total of malaria cases is down to 300 — from 3,000.
Success stories of Africa rarely catch the public eye in America. The first and most obvious reason is that bloodbaths always trump public-health campaigns for front-page space — which is as true in Africa as it is in Iraq. Encouraging statistics on the HIV-infection rate are consistently upstaged by killings in Darfur, the police-and-pauper state that is Zimbabwe, or the occasional tribal census masquerading as an election as in Kenya.
The second reason is that the professional caste of analyst-activists who comment on Africa are impossible to satisfy. Bush could announce a 1,000-percent increase in foreign aid to Africa, and still critics would say, “It’s too little, too late.” He could end two wars, depose a number of the world’s rottenest tyrannies, erase the debt saddled on Africans by their corrupt former rulers, and save the lives of more than a million of the world’s most downtrodden — indeed, the Bush administration has done just these things — and still it is “not enough.” Thankfully, a handful of people are beginning to think that it is enough — or at least a good start: U2 frontman Bono and even Sir Bob Geldof, whose typical modus operandi is unbridled indignation, have praised the Bush effort.
Finally, Bush gets no credit for his Africa policy because when “George W. Bush” and “foreign policy” are uttered together, you could almost swear you’d heard “Middle East.” Even many Africans seem willing to subordinate a discussion of Africa to one of the Middle East. In this respect, consider a recent tirade by Hamza Njozi, a lecturer at Tanzania’s University of Dar es Salaam. Njozi’s argument is polemical and paranoid, but if you can stomach reading it, you should — if only to see how easily America’s goodwill can be second-guessed and discounted.
The Middle East myopia is unsurprising and even natural. But it bears mentioning that even by liberal estimates of the total lives lost in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Bush administration’s conduct in Africa has saved more — by a few hundred thousand or so. This balance-sheet approach is no way to calculate the morality of one’s foreign policy. It is merely to point out that while the highly televised destruction of life occurs in one place, a virtually ignored mass saving of life is being effected elsewhere.
Whether saving the lives of the poorest and most politically voiceless Africans is strategically beneficial to the U.S. remains an open question. For its part, America’s main competitor in Africa has pursued a radically different course. China — which is artful in wooing the continent’s movers and shakers — openly declares that it will do business wherever there is an economic interest to do so. An infamous example of this trend is the sinister mercantilism China has built in Sudan: China pays Sudan for oil, and Sudan hands the cash right back to China to buy arms. What’s more, the People’s Republic has done more than any other regime to prop up Robert Mugabe, and recently sold Zimbabwe several million dollars worth of surveillance equipment.
To match America’s expansive program, China has cultivated a slightly perverse aid effort. While America’s is quiet but huge — delivering drugs and mosquito nets to the margins of society — China’s is a well-targeted, showy affair that has financed numerous houses of parliament and central bank buildings, and has sweetened the deal in less public ways with Africa’s “Big Men.” Nor does China presume to tell African countries how to conduct their internal affairs — a siren song for African politicians and intellectuals who have a habit of seeing neo-imperialism in demands for a clean, or at least cleaner, human-rights record.
America’s Millennium Challenge Grant project, by contrast, even sounds patronizing. Essentially, it is a compact open to a handful of Africa’s more progressive governments, who are subject to closer monitoring by American aid officials than in a typical foreign-aid scheme. America pledges a huge investment in infrastructure — thus the $300 million for Benin, about the size of Pennsylvania — in return for “honest, decent government for the people” in the words of Bush, who also signed a $700 million compact with Tanzania’s Jakaya Kikwete.
There is no telling if the plan will work. But there was at least one encouraging sign that slipped under the radar of Air Force One’s media gaggle. One week before Bush’s meeting with Kikwete, he fired nine Tanzanian government ministers — including the prime minister — based on longstanding corruption allegations. It seems a promising start.
– Travis Kavulla is a Gates Scholar in African history at Cambridge University, and a former associate editor of National Review. He has just returned from research leave in East Africa.