Bush African trip focuses on AIDS, anti-terrorism
By John Mercurio
WASHINGTON (CNN) -- President Bush's five-nation trip to Africa includes a U.S. goodwill package aimed at fighting AIDS, terrorism and poverty, while promoting democracy and capitalism.
But the good-will focus of his trip has already drawn skepticism from some observers -- even from a few Republicans.
"Is this for real, or is this tourism?" said Chester Crocker, assistant secretary of state for Africa under President Reagan.
Bush is the fourth president ever, and the first Republican president, to visit sub-Sarahan Africa. His itinerary includes Senegal, perhaps the continent's most peaceful and prosperous nation; South Africa, an economic powerhouse; Botswana, the fastest-growing developing country in the world; Uganda, where AIDS rates are falling dramatically this decade; and Nigeria, a key U.S. ally in the war on terrorism. He's scheduled to return home Saturday.
The president brings with him pledges of $15 billion over five years to fight AIDS, $200 million in famine relief and $100 million to fight terrorism.
Trip could hold unique appeal
The trip, originally set for January but postponed as the nation prepared for war in Iraq, could uniquely appeal to opposite ends of the political spectrum in the United States.
Bush hopes to reach out to both blacks, the voting bloc from which polls say he faces his most intractable resistance, and religious conservatives, who solidly back him but have been pushing his administration to invest more in global anti-poverty and hunger programs.
"It's very important for the United States to not only show its muscle to the world but also its heart," Bush said during a pre-trip interview with CNN International's "Inside Africa."
"And the AIDS initiative, and our judgment, when implemented, will help affect the lives of thousands of people who are suffering from ... a pandemic that's absolutely destroying life, and it's sad for us."
"And so, no, my administration is not only, you know, going on trips and meetings but, more importantly, fundamental policy, and I think that's important," he said.
When asked about the perception that his administration has only recently become concerned about internal African affairs, Bush said, "That's not true. " He charactered such claims as "misinformation."
"As a matter of fact, from the very beginning of my administration, I've been very much involved with African affairs," he said.
Bush, who said in January 2000 that he wouldn't have sent troops into Rwanda in the 1990s because Africa wasn't part of "our strategic interest," is poised to send at least 2,000 troops into Liberia this month as part of a peacekeeping mission designed to end years of chaos and violence in the West African nation.
No credible pollster has conducted a survey on Liberia since 1990 when Bush's father was heavily criticized for failing to intervene. But despite ongoing unrest in Iraq, political analysts overwhelmingly believe sending a small peacekeeping mission to Liberia, an entirely different effort, would be extremely popular.
Still, critics last week seized on Bush's trip as an opportunity to highlight his ongoing rift with black voters.
Roughly 500 people gathered in Johannesburg Saturday to protest Bush's visit, while several U.S. groups focused on Africa held press briefings last week to criticize his trip as insufficient.
Salih Booker, the executive director of Africa Action, the oldest U.S.-based advocacy group focused on Africa, said Bush's AIDS commitment is "a cruel hoax because none of this money is being made available now. ... Faced with this most deadly global threat, Bush continues to stall and its empty promises are costing thousands of African lives every day."
This criticism comes as no surprise to the White House which has gained little ground among black voters since taking office in 2001.
A CNN/USA TODAY/Gallup poll conducted last month found Bush trailing whoever wins the Democratic nod among black voters by an 11-to-1 margin. He drew support from just 7 percent of black voters, compared with 78 percent who would back the Democratic nominee. That hasn't changed much since the 2000 election, when Bush took just 8 percent of the black vote.