President Bush is on an African farewell tour of sorts and the enthusiasm — whether genuine or state-sponsored — is reportedly quite prominent. Reuters correspondent Barry Moody writes,
Back home, Bush is suffering some of the lowest approval ratings in his seven-year tenure and has been buffeted by criticism of his handling of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the ailing economy.
Not surprisingly he is enjoying the different reception in Africa.
Beaming repeatedly during a press conference with [Tanzanian President and current African Union head Jakaya] Kikwete, he made a point of referring to his welcome on the streets, which he described as “very moving”.
Moody’s piece does note that Muslim Africans are less than enthusiastic about the president’s trip and have even staged protests, which leads me to ask what factors are left out when explaining the praise for Bush’s accomplishments in Africa. And, in fairness to the president, they are real, noteworthy accomplishments:
Bush has spent more money on aid to Africa than his predecessor, Bill Clinton, and is popular for his personal programs to fight AIDS and malaria and to help hospitals and schools.
Bush has stressed new-style partnerships with Africa based on trade and investment and not purely on aid handouts.
His Millennium Challenge Corp. rewards countries that continue to satisfy criteria for democratic governance, anti-corruption and free-market economic policies.
Bush signed the largest such deal, for $698 million, with Kikwete on Sunday.
Because of the U.S. anti-malaria program, 5 percent of patients tested positive for the disease on the offshore islands of Zanzibar in 2007 compared to 40 percent three years earlier, the Tanzanian leader said.
Bush’s legacy in Africa would be saving the lives of hundreds of thousands of mothers and children who would otherwise have died from malaria or AIDS and enabling millions of people to get an education, he said.
So, what other factor may increase Bush’s popularity in sub-Saharan Africa?
Or rather, Bush may be unwittingly popular thanks to the perception that America under Bush is an “anti-Muslim” power. Let’s set aside the president’s “religion of peace” rhetoric or the fact that the US, wisely or unwisely, has supported Muslims in various conflicts around the world. Despite all efforts by the administration to contrary, the language of Islamic fundamentalists has colored the thinking of many in the developing world, and just as Muslim radicals on one side assail Bush, Africa’s Christians, animists, and moderate Muslims like Kikwete on the other side praise him. In fact, these two factions represent a “cold” civil war present throughout much of African society today.
Though it often goes unmentioned in the Western press, sub-Saharan Africa is undergoing a Huntingtonian struggle between the Christian and Westernized elites who represent the status quo, and the Muslim and Arabized masses that swell as Islam moves ever southward. While we do hear about the conflicts in Sudan and Nigeria, we hear less about conflicts stemming from Muslim demographic and cultural shifts in other African countries. Even in a comparatively stable multiethnic country like Tanzania, there remains a fear of fundamentalism and the real possibility of terrorist activity. (In case one forgets.) In countries where the Muslim population is a growing minority, such as Sierra Leone or the Ivory Coast, tensions are even higher.
Seen in the light of this cultural conflict, Bush’s Africa policy serves a dual purpose: promoting development and fighting fundamentalism. For example, American aid which provides for improved government services has the added benefit of undercutting fundamentalist organizations that use charity to attract the poor. Similarly, an effective mix of modern approaches to combat HIV/AIDS can rebut the fundamentalists who tout that only sharia is the answer to Africa’s AIDS crisis. Lastly, improved trade between the US and Africa can deny fundamentalism the impoverished soil it needs to grow and thrive, a point a certain would-be president ought to consider while he rails against the evils of free trade.
In conclusion, aid for Africa is, by far, Bush’s best foreign policy initiative, and the only one his successor has a moral imperative to continue and improve upon, even if the next president isn’t seen as a foe of fundamentalism.