Jewish World Review July 9, 2003 / 9 Tamuz, 5763

Jim Hoagland

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In Africa, it pays to think small | Africa often overwhelms the first-time visitor. President Bush will need to keep his impatience in check, his attention focused on what he is not being told and his compassion in judicious supply as he hopscotches across the continent this week.

Africa's needs are so vast, its people so deserving and many of its leaders so corrupt and uncaring that it is easy to zoom to extremes of altruism or despair when directly confronting the continent's challenges. Or, most frequently, to come to the latter through the former: to give up on an entire region because initial, overly ambitious and emotional responses do not work as planned.

Africa confounds foreign policy realists and idealists in equal measure. It has absorbed and outlasted colonialists, commissars and good Samaritans for centuries, burying their acts of human exploitation, ideological competition and self-motivated kindness in its jungles or desert sands. The continent is a graveyard for splashy but unsustainable policy initiatives.

It is counterintuitive, but frequently wise, to think small in Africa -- if you also think long. Time is Africa's essential commodity and its most effective shield against foreign intruders and foreign ways. Africa is thus a region in which chipping away at problems offers more chance of success than do quick political fixes and urgent large aid packages.

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But such long-term efforts are frequently at odds with Western political cycles and needs. A physical metaphor for this disconnection was pointed out to me by a Liberian doctor nearly 30 years ago during a tour of a gleaming new hospital built near Monrovia with U.S. aid.

"We will never be able to staff this hospital and keep it supplied," I recall him saying. "We could have spent the same money on a dozen rural health clinics that we could sustain. But then there would not have been a big and well-publicized dedication ceremony attended by your congressmen and high-level aid administrators, and by our ministers."

George W. Bush's immediate agenda in Africa is a valid one. The disappearance from power of tyrants like Liberia's Charles Taylor and Zimbabwe's Robert Mugabe would improve those countries and the world immeasurably. But what follows the sudden regime changes that Bush is proposing needs to be thought through and crafted with care, and with international partners, as the administration is learning in Iraq.

The same is true of Bush's laudable effort to prod Congress into providing billions of dollars to help fight the AIDS epidemic that is devastating some of the continent's most potentially prosperous societies. Fitting the Bush AIDS initiative into an overarching and detailed international program that will last a decade or longer would improve its chances of success.

Bush's chances of sustaining a long-term interest in Africa may actually be better than they appear on the surface. He was at the White House in 1991 when his father initiated America's most recent experience with the altruism-to-despair syndrome in Africa by dispatching U.S. troops to Somalia to reestablish order and get food aid to its starving people.

But that mission -- blessed by the Pentagon in part to avoid U.S. engagement in the Balkans -- was not sufficient to sustain an American commitment through a change of administrations. When fighting in Mogadishu in 1993 cost the lives of 18 American soldiers, President Clinton precipitously withdrew U.S. forces and left Somalia to sort out its fate.

This sequence illustrates the danger of feel-good politics and policies that are perceived to be detached from strategic interests. But there was a double-whammy in the Somali experience that became apparent only on Sept. 11, 2001.

George W. Bush is drawn to this African journey by the overriding imperative that guides all of his post-9/11 foreign policy: to avoid disaster wherever he can.

Africa's failed states offer platforms for al Qaeda and other terror organizations to regroup and attack Americans. Bush's presence this week shows that the United States has a vital stake in preventing large swaths of Africa or other continents from becoming no-man's land.

But no American leader can accomplish that task alone or overnight. Bush will need to patiently coax Africa's leaders and citizens into recognizing their own long-term stake in rolling back the forces of terror. More superficial incentives will not accomplish much of a lasting nature.

Bush's journey to Africa should be seen as a first step rather than a quick stop that can be checked off and forgotten. This president has recently shown a willingness to jump into raging political torrents abroad. His task now is to show he can sustain and expand that engagement over time.

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