I gave the President my book. He raised an eyebrow. “Who wrote this for ya, Geldof?” he said without looking up from the cover. Very dry. “Who will you get to read it for you, Mr. President?” I replied. No response.
The Most Powerful Man in the World studied the front cover. Geldof in Africa ” ‘The international best seller.’ You write that bit yourself?”
“That’s right. It’s called marketing. Something you obviously have no clue about or else I wouldn’t have to be here telling people your Africa story.”
It is some story. And I have always wondered why it was never told properly to the American people, who were paying for it. It was, for example, Bush who initiated the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief with cross-party support led by Senators John Kerry and Bill Frist. In 2003, only 50,000 Africans were on HIV antiretroviral drugs and they had to pay for their own medicine. Today, 1.3 million are receiving medicines free of charge. The U.S. also contributes one-third of the money for the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria which treats another 1.5 million. It contributes 50% of all food aid . On a seven-day trip through Africa, Bush announced a fantastic new $350 million fund for other neglected tropical diseases that can be easily eradicated; a program to distribute 5.2 million mosquito nets to Tanzanian kids; and contracts worth around $1.2 billion in Tanzania and Ghana from the Millennium Challenge Account, another initiative of the Bush Administration.
So why doesn’t America know about this? “I tried to tell them. But the press weren’t much interested,” says Bush. It’s half true. There are always a couple of lines in the State of the Union, but not enough so that anyone noticed, and the press really isn’t interested. For them, like America itself, Africa is a continent of which little is known save the odd horror.
We sat in the large, wood-paneled conference room of Air Force One as she cruised the skies of the immense African continent below us. Gathered around the great oval table, I wondered how changed was the man who said in 2000 that Africa “doesn’t fit into the national strategic interests, as far as I can see them.”
“Hold on a minute. I said that in response to a military question. Condi! Canya get in here,” the President shouts out the open door, leaning back in his chair. The Secretary of State, looking glamorous and fresh despite having been diverted to Kenya to articulate the U.S.’s concern over matters there before jetting back to Rwanda to join her boss, sits down. “Hi, Bob.” “Hi, Condi.” It’s like being inside a living TV screen.
Bush asks whether she remembers the context of the 2000 question. She confirms it was regarding the U.S.’s military strategies inside Africa, but then 2000 was so long ago. Another universe. I ask him if it is the same today. “Yes, sir,” he says. “Well, if America has no military interest in Africa, then what is Africom for?” I ask.
People in Africa are worried about this new, seemingly military command. I thought it was an inappropriate and knee-jerk U.S. militaristic response to clumsy Chinese mercantilism that could only end in tears for everyone concerned.
“That’s ridiculous,” says Bush. “We’re still working on it. We’re trying to build a humanitarian mission that would train up soldiers for peace and security so that African nations are more capable of dealing with Africa’s conflicts. You agree with that dontcha?” Indeed I do. The British intervention in Sierra Leone stopped and prevented a catastrophe, as did U.S. action in Liberia. Later, in public, Bush says, “I want to dispel the notion that all of a sudden America is bringing all kinds of military to Africa. It’s simply not true … That’s baloney, or as we say in Texas that’s bull!” Trouble is, it sounds to me a lot like what the U.S. did in the early Vietnam years with the advisers who became something else. Mission creep, I think it’s called.
“No, that won’t happen,” Bush insists. “We’re still working on what exactly it’ll be, but it will be a humanitarian mission, training in peace and security, conflict resolution … It’s a new concept and we want to get it right.” He muses for a while on the U.S. and China, and their policies on Africa Africans are increasingly resentful that the Chinese bring their own labor force and supplies with them. Then, in what I took to be a reference to the supposed Chinese influence over the cynical Khartoum regime, Bush adds, “One thing I will say: Human suffering should preempt commercial interest.”
It’s a wonderful sentence, and it comes in the wake of a visit to Rwanda’s Genocide Memorial Center. The museum is built on the site of a still-being-filled open grave. There are 250,000 individuals in that hole, tumbled together in an undifferentiated tangle of humanity. The President and First Lady were visibly shocked by the museum. “Evil does exist,” Bush says in reaction to the 1994 massacres. “And in such a brutal form.” He is not speechifying; he is horror-struck by the reality of ethnic madness. “Babies had their skulls smashed,” he says, his mind violently regurgitating an image he has just witnessed. The sentence peters out, emptied of words to describe the ultimately incomprehensible.
Rwanda brings him back again to Darfur. In an interview with African journalists, Bush explained the difficulties there now that the “rebels” had broken up into ever-smaller factions, no longer representing their own clans but their own warlord interests. What should we do in this very 21st century asymmetric situation? Impose a wall of peacekeepers first, stop the massacre and rape, and begin negotiating? “The U.N. is so slow, but we must act,” Bush says.
Action may very well be his wish, but because of the U.S.’s intervention elsewhere and his own preemptive philosophy, it is now unacceptable for the U.S. to engage unilaterally. By his own deeds, he has rendered U.S. action in Darfur impossible. As for the rest of the world, for all their oft-spoken pieties, they seem to be able to agree on precisely nothing. Meanwhile, the rape and killing continue, Khartoum plays its game of murder and we won’t even pay for the helicopters that the U.N. forces need to protect themselves. Pathetic.