If President Bush had ignored sub-Saharan Africa during his international travels, detractors would have wailed about the shame of it all. But his recent five-day visit hasn't satisfied the critics, either. Some chide the president for insufficient boldness, while others dismiss his tour as a series of politically motivated photo opportunities.
The carping strikes me as shortsighted and unfair. No U.S. president could hope to reverse -- in the course of a single workweek -- a historical American stance toward sub-Saharan Africa that can be summarized with one word: neglect.
At least Bush is trying, despite a complicated and distracting list of international priorities ranging from the war against terrorism to the search for Middle East peace. He deserves a chance to demonstrate whether a real turning point in U.S. relations with sub-Saharan Africa is at hand.
It ought to happen. For as long as global affairs have held my attention, I have endured chatter about sub-Saharan Africa's increasing marginalization, relative unimportance and seemingly unending problems. Rather than obsessing over the subcontinent's shortcomings, it would make more sense for the United States to broaden its partnership efforts.
In a refreshingly comprehensive manner, Bush touched on all the key issues--including the legacy of slavery -- during his subcontinental sweep. He clearly has begun the process of redefining U.S. relations with the region.
However, several areas cry out for greater, consistent, long-term attention:
- Conflict. Liberia's civil war holds center stage at the moment, although it provides merely the latest example of the risks of doing too little before a crisis erupts. Still, quick U.S. action could ameliorate the situation. Bush shouldn't hesitate to commit U.S. troops, as part of an international force, lest Liberia's instability spill more than it has into neighboring countries.
- Democracy. Sub-Saharan African nations can point with pride to the progress they have made during the past decade. However, they could launch a bid for an even brighter future by expanding the empowerment and participation of their citizens. The United States, which already provides some election support and other help, should boost its assistance in all aspects of democracy-building.
- Development. Sub-Saharan Africa cannot seriously contemplate economic development without first receiving debt relief. It's time for Bush to lead a global effort to forgive the region's debts. Then, through a combination of economic reforms, trade, investment, loans and aid, sub-Saharan Africa could aim for greater prosperity. The recently established African Union, which seeks rapid integration, could facilitate that kind of coordinated initiative.
- Disease. The priority must be HIV/AIDS, not sub-Saharan Africa's only health concern but its most urgent. In some countries, the scourge afflicts nearly 40 percent of adults. Bush should redouble his efforts to obtain enough U.S. resources to make a difference and work more closely with other nations to mount a true war against HIV/AIDS -- including reasonably priced drugs.
- Terrorism. The war against terror has boosted the strategic significance of sub-Saharan Africa, which contains innumerable and enticing American targets. Terrorists also maneuver the region with relative ease, taking advantage of crises and governments' limited resources. Stepped-up, regular attention to enhancing security cooperation would help to discourage horrifying incidents, such as the 1998 attacks against U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania.
Those challenges will test Bush's new-found interest in sub-Saharan Africa. To the extent that he moves from his impressive rhetoric to substantive actions, the U.S.-Africa relationship will shed its history of neglect.
John C. Bersia, who won a Pulitzer Prize in editorial writing for the Orlando Sentinel in 2000, is also the special assistant to the president for global perspectives and a professor at the University of Central Florida. His e-mail address is jbersiaorlandosentinel.com.