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Illustration by Krieg Barrie

Africa for Africa

And for Americans, too

Issue: "Bleeding economy," Oct. 18, 2008

A Dutchman working for an American firm in Khartoum once told me, "The United States will one day regret that it stood by while everyone else got their foothold in Africa." At the time we were standing by big windows surveying bridges then being built across the White and Blue Niles by the Chinese, the Germans, and a skyscraper under construction by the Libyans: I disagreed that U.S. sanctions against Sudan had been a bad thing, but he insisted, "The United States has stood on its principles, but the economic effect is not only to lose business opportunities but to let others dictate ethical standards. And it's the United States whose ethical standards are needed."

It's hard for the U.S. government to get it right on Africa. When Washington engages, it's often accused of being heavy-handed and neocolonialist. When it disengages, it's accused of letting the world's second largest and second most populous continent suffer. The reality, of course, is somewhere in between.

During the Bush administration the United States took one macro-lunge into social policy in Africa by launching PEPFAR, the President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, and spending $15 billion over five years on treatment and prevention programs for AIDS and malaria-the largest commitment by any nation to combat a disease. When President Bush made his farewell trip to Africa in February, he received little attention in the United States but a hero's welcome in Ghana and elsewhere. And now the United States is ready to take another macro-lunge into the continent. Oct. 1 marked the long-scheduled launch of the U.S. Africa command, AFRICOM, a new U.S. combatant command that will combine into one war-fighting entity all branches of service along with intelligence gathering and-for the first time in a U.S. command-some humanitarian operations.

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The high-concept command, even on the eve of its launch, is on shaky ground. First and foremost, it will not be actually located in Africa, but in Stuttgart, Germany. About the only country to offer to host it is Liberia, a former American colony with political upheaval of its own. Africans who look to Iraq and a nearly six-year occupation are reluctant to see the benefits of a U.S. command center on their continent. And, according to Air Force War College professor Daniel Henk, "Anywhere we'd put the headquarters in Africa would cause significant political problems-in many cases within the country itself, in others between African countries" who would question the motives of both the United States and a host country. And then there are Africa's infrastructural weaknesses: "Almost nowhere in Africa (other than possibly Johannesburg, South Africa) offers rapid access to most of the rest of the continent," said Henk.

Adding freight to getting AFRICOM off the ground is last-minute cold feet in Congress. Less than two weeks before the command was set to become operational, the House Appropriations subcommittee on defense recommended providing only about 20 percent of the funding requested by the Pentagon. Reluctance on Capitol Hill is in part indicative of another problem we've seen throughout this administration, and with devastating effect in Iraq: Pentagon and State Department officials fighting each other when they should be focused on larger enemies abroad. Now some careerists are disputing the Pentagon's right to set up a command covering 53 nations.

It's important to remember that Africa isn't simply a sometimes sinkhole for U.S. humanitarian assistance. Al-Qaeda elements have attacked and killed Americans at two U.S. embassies, Kenya and Tanzania. Osama bin Laden once found Sudan a safe haven. Trans-Saharan terrorist networks are on the rise. And a car bomb killed 16 last month outside the U.S. embassy in Yemen, just across the Red Sea.

The bottom line is that the United States can help Africans and at the same time protect its own interests. And even Dutchmen recognize that it is a force for good in ways other developed countries never will be.

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