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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Bush's Africa Trip Not Just PR

WASHINGTON -- U.S. President George W. Bush left Monday night for a five-nation tour of Africa, turning to a continent that his administration increasingly sees as a source of both threats and opportunities and no longer one that can be left at the bottom of the foreign policy to-do list.

The official focus of the five-day trip -- which was originally scheduled for January but was postponed as the president prepared for war with Iraq -- is on fighting poverty and disease and promoting democracy. But it has taken on a new cast in recent weeks as Bush has assertively called for changes of government in Zimbabwe and Liberia and moved to the brink of sending U.S. troops to Liberia as peacekeepers.

In his first trip to sub-Saharan Africa as president, Bush will visit Senegal, South Africa, Botswana, Uganda and Nigeria. Each of those countries is an economic or political success by African standards, and Bush's presence is intended both to celebrate their progress and to encourage other African nations to continue the struggle toward free elections and free markets.

His trip comes at a time when Africa is looming larger in calculations of U.S. interests. In the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, the United States is eager to keep poor nations with shaky governments from becoming breeding grounds and safe harbors for terrorists. It sees Africa as the world's last largely untapped market. It holds out hope that Africa's substantial oil reserves could play a larger role in fueling the U.S. economy and perhaps serving as a counterweight to the influence of OPEC.

At a time when Bush is widely viewed, at home and abroad, as focused primarily on projecting U.S. power and defending its interests by military means, administration officials say the president is determined to show another face of his foreign policy.

The president "understands that America is a country that really does have to be committed to values and to making life better for people around the world, that that's what the world looks to America to do," said Condoleezza Rice, the national security adviser, in a briefing with reporters on Thursday.

African leaders and many analysts in the United States said they saw in Bush's engagement with Africa the hand of his two senior foreign policy advisers: Rice and Secretary of State Colin Powell, the two highest-profile African-Americans in government. Neither Rice nor Powell has made a secret of the desire to have Washington play a more active role in a part of the world that U.S. foreign policy long addressed only fitfully or as a pawn in the Cold War and to acknowledge more fully the ties between Africa and the United States.

There is still considerable skepticism, in Washington and in Africa, about the depths of Bush's commitment, diplomats and analysts said. There is concern among some Africa hands that Bush's interest will wane after he makes the point to the world that he is more than the unilateralist gunslinger he is often, fairly or unfairly, made out to be. With presidential politics increasingly coming to the fore at the White House, there is also grumbling among advocacy groups that the trip is little more than a way for Bush to flesh out his "compassionate conservative" platform for his re-election race.

Administration officials say Bush's commitment is indeed substantial. They point to quiet but promising efforts made by the administration to broker a peace deal in Sudan. They mention the Pentagon's interest in forging closer military ties with friendly nations, and Bush's call last month to extend what economists say has been one of the most important elements of policy toward Africa, the African Growth and Opportunity Act, a trade law that allows many African products to be exported to the United States without duties and quotas.

There are clearly risks for Bush, especially as he confronts more directly the problems of countries like Zimbabwe, whose economy is collapsing under the increasingly autocratic rule of President Robert Mugabe. If he sends troops into Liberia as peacekeepers, he will be putting American lives on the line for a nation that has been the site of brutal fighting and the source of considerable instability in the region for years.

He would also be reviving the specter of Somalia, where 18 American soldiers died in a failed attempt at peacekeeping in 1993.

Jamie Drummond, executive director of DATA, a nonprofit group that calls for more assistance for Africa, said the real test would be whether the president could win from Congress an agreement to finance fully the two programs that are the centerpieces of his Africa policy. One is a five-year, $15 billion plan to fight AIDS in 14 countries, 12 of them in Africa. The other, called the Millennium Challenge Account, is a pledge to channel $10 billion over the next three years to poor countries that can show that they are making nuts-and-bolts progress toward democracy and capitalism.

Budgets for both programs, however, are likely to be cut in the coming week below the levels sought by the White House. Even as Bush is putting a spotlight on the programs in Africa this week, a House appropriations subcommittee is planning to trim them back, both because of a budget squeeze and because Republicans on the subcommittee said the administration had not gotten either program fully up and running.

Rice said the president would take on his own party over the issue if necessary.

"The message to Congress is that the president requested funding at the levels he thought necessary to get the job done," she said. "And we are all of us actively engaging with the Congress to try and get full funding."

A U.S. military team flew into Liberia on Monday to look at how best to bring stability to the broken West African country as President Charles Taylor prepares for foreign exile, Reuters reported.

The first group of the humanitarian survey team touched down in a helicopter at the heavily fortified U.S. Embassy in the steamy coastal capital Monrovia. The 20-member team is seen as a possible precursor to a larger force.

Bush has not yet decided whether to send peacekeepers to the country founded by freed American slaves in the 19th century. He insists that the first step should be Taylor's departure.

Hemmed in by rebels and wanted for war crimes by an international court, Taylor said Sunday that he had accepted an offer of asylum from regional giant Nigeria and just wanted to make sure an international force was in place before stepping down to prevent chaos.