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Jeff Greenfield: Africa and Bush's agenda

CNN's Jeff Greenfield
CNN's Jeff Greenfield

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New York (CNN) -- President Bush embarks Monday on his first trip to Africa -- a five-nation tour that includes stops in Senegal, South Africa, Botswana, Nigeria and Uganda.

Bush has said he hopes the visit will highlight his initiative to fight AIDS and strengthen ties between the United States and Africa.

CNN Anchor Soledad O'Brien spoke Monday with CNN senior analyst Jeff Greenfield about the international and domestic impetus behind Bush's African journey.

O'BRIEN: President Bush's trip to Africa comes at a time when developments on the continent have a depressingly familiar tone. Along with the upheaval in Liberia, Congo and Sudan also have civil wars raging, while Morocco and Tunisia are dealing with al Qaeda. The continent has rarely been front and center in the minds of U.S. policymakers. So just how did Africa make it to the top of the president's diplomatic to-do list?

When George W. Bush was running for president, he said that Africa was not at the top of his agenda. What's changed since then?

GREENFIELD: In fact what he said, Soledad, was [that] it doesn't fit into the national strategic interests as far as [he could] see them. What's changed I think is what's changed in so many other areas, and we start with September 11.

We remember that before al Qaeda struck New York and Washington, they struck two U.S. embassies in Africa in 1998. They struck in Tunisia and more recently in Morocco. Ten years ago, they attacked American troops in Somalia. So there's a specific interest in not letting any base in Africa become the new Afghanistan.

And second, there are places all across the continent where religious conflict is a present and future danger. In Sudan, you mentioned the civil war between Muslims. ...

And while we're focused on Islam, Christianity of a traditionalist and a kind of militant sort is growing all over Africa. So I think there's an interest in encouraging stability in pluralism. All of the places the president is visiting are success stories in one way or another.

And finally, it's the sheer immensity of the human suffering. Quite apart from civil wars and famine, you're talking about an AIDS epidemic in sub-Saharan Africa that has left not just millions dead, but probably in the future tens of millions of AIDS orphans.

These are children who have lost one or both parents, and the future not only of those kids but the entire societies they are part of is almost beyond comprehension. So strategic or not, I think Africa is a place where attention has to be paid.

O'BRIEN: Let's talk politics for just a moment and the implications domestically for George W. Bush with this trip.

GREENFIELD: Yes, I think there are two. First, the president's AIDS initiative, the $15 billion in assistance he's proposed, may be the most visible example of the compassionate conservatism that he claims to embody. The U.S. may not pay much attention to Africa in general, but in the past, the sight of massive human suffering has triggered an impulse to help. You remember the Live Aid efforts back in the '80s.

Now second, and this is trickier, Americans of all backgrounds feel an identity with their roots. Eastern European immigrants were big supporters of the tough line on the Soviet Union, American Jews and Israel.

Now I have to be straight with you, I have my doubts about whether a visit like this is going to have a huge impact on African-Americans and their traditional allegiance to the Democrats. But the fact is the Republicans get so small a share of that vote that anything, anything that helps Republicans get even a small measure of support from the black community, it's a bonus.

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