Bush’s Africa burden


The White House scramble for Africa came to an end this week -- symbolically, at least. During his tour of the continent, President Bush seized every opportunity to boast of his innovative approaches to African health and development issues. But he kept strangely silent about what may be his administration’s most enduring legacy for Africa: AFRICOM, the most significant U.S. foreign and military policy innovation you’ve probably never heard of.

AFRICOM stands for the U.S. Africa Command, created by presidential order in February 2007. On the surface, AFRICOM doesn’t sound like anything special -- the U.S. already has several military commands organized geographically: PACCOM (Pacific Command), CENTCOM (Central Command) and EUCOM (European Command), so why not AFRICOM? But unlike the others, AFRICOM has the promotion of stability as its primary mission. It’s designed, as the president put it, “to enhance our efforts to bring peace and security to the people of Africa and to promote the ... development of health, education, democracy and economic growth.”

Yes, you read that right: The Defense Department has a new military command dedicated, more or less, to establishing peace, love and understanding in Africa. Don’t giggle or sneer; they’re serious. AFRICOM will bring together military personnel with civilian employees from the State Department, the USAID and other U.S. agencies, and most U.S. humanitarian work in Africa will be coordinated through AFRICOM.


Already, U.S. military personnel are delivering supplies to refugees in Chad, training African peacekeeping forces and helping Congolese military officials develop protocols for prosecuting sex crimes. Also under AFRICOM auspices, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration will be training Africans to monitor their fishing industry, the USAID is delivering meals in Ghana, Navy personnel are painting classrooms in Senegal and Army and Air Force medical personnel are holding exchanges with their counterparts from Djibouti.

So what’s not to love about AFRICOM? And on a trip during which he missed no other opportunities to seize a little credit, why wasn’t the president touting AFRICOM?

The trouble with AFRICOM is that its very ambition has left many observers queasy, as well as intrigued.

In some ways, the creation of AFRICOM merely represents the long-overdue recognition, on the part of the White House and the Defense Department, that global poverty, development, democracy and the rule of law should all be seen as security issues for the U.S. In this interconnected world, not even the most hard-nosed, coldhearted superpower can afford to ignore the poorest, weakest states or desperate, hopeless people.

Where governance structures are weak and people are desperate, terrorists and criminal networks can easily take root. So too can deadly diseases that, with the help of air travel, can reach our First World enclaves in a few hours. Africa also produces 30% of the world’s uranium supply and 20% of its total petroleum. If instability disrupts these supplies -- or if bad actors seize control of them -- we’ll all suffer.

AFRICOM takes seriously the interconnected nature of modern security threats and responds by seeking to seamlessly merge both the “hard” and “soft” components of U.S. power. Through AFRICOM, soldiers and diplomats, doctors and teachers, police officers and engineers will work hand in hand to promote the U.S. objective of advancing stability in Africa.



Innovative though it may be, it also has a familiar ring to it, one that isn’t reassuring to many African ears. It’s a Kipling-esque ring, perhaps: something to do with the White Man’s Burden, something that reminds many Africanists of the bad old days of colonialism, when European imperial powers also seamlessly merged their military, economic, political and diplomatic forces to dominate and exploit Africa’s people and resources.

Promoting African peace, democracy and development are all good things, but the U.S. efforts might be more palatable if the velvet glove handing out foreign aid weren’t stretched so obviously over the iron fist of the world’s most lethal war-fighting machine. To skeptics, AFRICOM’s creation suggests that the scramble for Africa isn’t over, it’s just entering a new phase, as the U.S. seeks to keep Africa stable -- on U.S. terms.

That’s why the White House has found itself playing defense on AFRICOM, with Bush carefully avoiding mention of it for most of his trip. By Wednesday, though, he was finally forced to address “a controversial subject brewing around that’s not very well understood.”

“I want to dispel the notion that all of a sudden America is bringing all kinds of military to Africa,” Bush told an audience in Ghana. “It’s just simply not true.”

Of course not.