When politicians see their numbers heading south in the polls, they rush to arrange an easy photo op. A snapshot of a politician reaching out to comfort a hospital patient or the survivor of a natural disaster is sure to bring a tear to the eye of a voting constituent. George W. Bush’s numbers have sunk so low – into the sub-basements of popularity – that he’s decided to embrace not just a single sick patient or even a hospital full of them. This week, the president will be hugging an entire continent.
In his upcoming five-country swing through Africa, Bush will be looking for something very specific: his legacy. Peace did not suddenly break out after his recent Middle East trip. Iraq lies in ruins. Afghanistan is a disaster. North Korea acquired a nuclear weapon. Latin America has united against Washington’s predations. So where’s an unpopular, legacy-chasing president to go?
According to the remaining Bush boosters, his administration has been Africa’s biggest friend. The United States has spent $15 billion over five years on HIV/AIDS and $1.2 billion over the same period on malaria, which has earned Bush accolades from the likes of Bono. Or listen to Ward Brehm, chairman of the government-sponsored U.S. African Development Foundation. “These people in Africa don’t have a voice. They can shout in agony but nobody hears them,” Brehm says. “I think President Bush has been their voice.”
It’s certainly true that Africans are perhaps the least listened-to people in the world. But has President Bush actually listened to them or spoken on their behalf?
For instance, as FPIF contributor Gerald LeMelle points out in Africa Policy Outlook: 2008, the Bush administration has listened very carefully to the military sector in Africa and spoken very eloquently on its behalf. “The total amount of U.S. military sales, financing, and training expenditures for eight African countries considered particularly strategic for the ‘war on terror’ has increased from about $40 million over the five years from 1997 through 2001 to over $130 million between 2002 and 2006,” he writes. Money for military training is up, and the administration is transferring responsibility for humanitarian aid from the State Department to the Defense Department as part of its Africa Command initiative.
Bush would prefer that journalists focus on his HIV/AIDS initiatives rather than all the guns that the United States is sending Africa. But even here, the legacy is tarnished. As LeMelle argues, “this program has so far fallen drastically short of the funding levels necessary to make serious progress against the pandemic. Effective implementation of U.S. global HIV/AIDS programs under the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) has also been hampered by ideological constraints in this program and an over-reliance on name-brand drugs as opposed to the more cost-effective generic versions.”
Bush’s African tour will be a careful tip-toe around the disasters. There will be no photo ops in Sudan or Chad, chaotic Kenya or conflict-riven Congo. Instead, Bush will visit Benin, Tanzania, Rwanda, Ghana, and Liberia – countries that are generally pro-American at a time when U.S. popularity around the world remains extremely low.
Bush’s own popularity will not likely rise above freezing after this trip. As for the elusive legacy, the president and his dwindling troupe of allies are like the explorers who once searched Africa for the magical kingdom of Prester John. They never found what they were looking for. And they left a colonial legacy in their wake.
War and More War
Bush’s approach to Africa resembles his approach to the world as a whole. At a time when diplomacy is desperately needed to resolve the myriad conflicts in Africa, the Bush administration is lavishing money on the region’s militaries. So, too, at home. The administration is proposing a budget that would spend more on the military than at any point since World War II. Meanwhile, diplomacy is getting short shrift. “If President George W. Bush gets the budget he has requested, we will spend in the 2009 fiscal year 18 times the money engaging the rest of the world through the military as by any other means,” write FPIF contributors Miriam Pemberton and Anita Dancs in Bush Budgets Adds to Military, Cuts Prevention.
How do the leading Democratic candidates feel about this pampering of the Pentagon? Neither Barack Obama nor Hillary Clinton has called for a freeze on U.S. military spending much less a reduction. However, FPIF contributor Stephen Zunes believes that much can be learned about the candidates by looking at who is whispering in their ears. “While some of Obama’s key advisors, like Larry Korb, have expressed concern at the enormous waste from excess military spending, Clinton’s advisors have been strong supporters of increased resources for the military,” he writes in Behind Obama and Clinton.
This week, FPIF also takes a close look at one of the main drivers of U.S. military spending: China. It’s largely a matter of hype, FPIF contributor Henry Rosemont, Jr. argues in Is China a Threat? After all, even if one uses the largest estimates of its military budget, China is still spending less than one-fifth what the United States is devoting to the Pentagon. It lacks a blue-water navy, an air force capable of projecting force over great distances, and a basing structure to support all of this.
“It should thus be clear that the Chinese have much better grounds for fearing the United States than the other way around, and this holds true not only in terms of actual military capabilities, but also in the readiness and willingness to use them,” Rosemont writes. “Unlike the United States, which has well over a quarter of a million troops stationed overseas with attendant army, naval, and air force weapons and delivery systems equal to the rest of the world together, the entire Chinese army, navy, and air force are based within its own borders, and shooting at no one.”
Meanwhile, if you’re interested in what’s going on inside China and its economy, check out my review essay The Big Yam in The Nation, which describes the battle between foreign companies and Chinese firms for the hearts, minds, and checkbooks of the largest national consumer market in the world.
Several hundred thousand protestors poured into the streets of Mexico City at the end of last month to protest what free trade has done to their country. Consumers are upset at the rising price of corn; farmers are desperate over the rising price of fertilizer. It’s not a level playing field, the protestors argued.
FPIF’s guest columnist Katie Kohlstedt sent us a report from the protests. In Mexicans Say: Integrate This, she writes of the startling inequities in the agricultural subsidies in the three North American countries. “A U.S. farmer, for instance, would receive direct or indirect subsidies equivalent to $150 a hectare (2.5 acres),” she writes. “Cross the river to Mexico and the farmer would only get around $45. According to a report by Mexico’s Center for Studies on Public Finance, despite the World Trade Organization’s aim to reduce subsidies, the United States gave out more than $611.3 billion in subsidies between 2000 and 2005, while in the same years Mexico gave $46.3 billion and Canada $51.4 billion. Total U.S. subsidies in 2005 were nearly 20 times that of Mexico.”
This week, FPIF also published the first of a series of essays on how to solve global warming. Before offering his own program, Tom Athanasiou criticizes a current piece of legislation for its approach to the corporate sector. “The authors of the Lieberman-Warner bill propose to launch the age of U.S. federal climate legislation with a giveaway of almost 80% of total permits – a massive, perhaps unprecedented corporate giveaway,” he writes in Toward a Defensible Climate Realism. “They further propose to reduce that giveaway so slowly that decades upon precious decades would pass before the windfall fades and the auction revenue stream widens enough so that low-income transition assistance, renewables and energy efficiency subsidies, adaptation funding, ‘cap-and-dividend’ style citizen rebates, forest protection, technology transfer support, and all the rest of the necessary transition programs have some hope of adequate funding.”
The Bush administration’s legacy? It’s not the few billions spent on health care in Africa. It’s the many billions transferred to the accounts of the already wealthy.