President Bush has traveled to the African continent on a trip billed as "an opportunity to demonstrate America's commitment to the people of…Africa." Yet Africans are likely to be as skeptical of Mr. Bush's "compassionate conservatism" as African Americans.
Bush is frequently heralded as the president that has done more for Africa than any in U.S. history. Supporters spotlight this trip as an important part of the Bush legacy, noting the labeling of Darfur atrocities as genocide, increased funding to combat the HIV/AIDS pandemic, creation of the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) that provides grants to developing countries, and a 54 percent increase in development assistance. To be fair, some U.S. initiatives have been quite positive. Unfortunately, those successes do not compensate for the damage inflicted on the continent by trade and economic policies and a skewed sense of national security.
Contrary to the assertions by administration supporters, Bush's most significant success is not what he has done for Africa, but rather what has been done for certain U.S. interests. The president has consolidated an ideologically conservative economic, political and military agenda, aggressively constructing an economic web in which narrowly conceived U.S. interests are the winners and Africans the losers.
The "Global War on Terror" has dominated U.S. foreign policy, and African governments willing to comply receive foreign aid, military assistance and political support. U.S. aid to Kenya increased dramatically once Kenya began to aid "extraordinary rendition" of the citizens of Eastern Africa. Elsewhere, the Bush administration, while vocally criticizing the government of Sudan, has engaged in substantial intelligence-sharing with the government of Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir. According to the Sudanese government they have a "complete normalization of our relations with the CIA."
The Bush administration's policy of engagement also includes a plan to expand the U.S. military footprint with the new U.S. Africa Command (Africom). Africom represents a commitment to the promotion and protection of U.S. state and corporate interests above those of African citizens.
The Millennium Corporate Challenge, took two years to cement agreements with five African countries; only 23 percent of the funds planned for Africa have been disbursed. The president's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief has increased access to drugs. But the administration's decision to act unilaterally, instead of fully supporting the UN Global Fund created problems. The program emphasizes abstinence and faithfulness in marriage, yet, according to public health data, these approaches are ineffective.
The central thrust of the president's national security strategy has been the "moral imperative" of "economic freedom" and fierce support for the free market. For Africa, this doctrine, commonly known as the "Washington Consensus" has meant the creation of policies that emphasize low budget deficits and force nations to cut spending on social needs, such as education, health and clean water. It has required privatization of essential social services for nations where majority of people live on less than a $1 per day.
As African Americans, we are intimately familiar with the impact of these policies. Bush, and others before him have used the same principles to eliminate the social safety net. The same conservative economists supported an unregulated housing boom, which has led to the current housing crises that disproportionately affects African American homeowners, creating the greatest loss of wealth for people of color in modern U.S. history, according to a report by the Institute for Policy Studies.
Another important part of the conservative agenda has been trade liberalization – likewise disastrous for African and African Americans. Zambia once had a vibrant textile industry, where 140 firms employed thousands. Today, only 8 textile firms remain, and the country is awash with imports of cheap second-hand clothing.
In the United States, NAFTA and other free trade agreements have resulted in the continued loss of manufacturing and blue-collar jobs; jobs that had enabled many African Americans to move from poverty to the middle class.
Conservative ideology is even seen in the administration's appalling approach to climate change. The administration has ignored the scientific community regarding the need to address the issue, scoffed at the data and now, when estimates are that we have ten years to address warming before irreparable harm is done, the steps forward are minuscule.
Research indicates that the African continent will bear the greatest burden of climate change. In the United States, we need go no further than the deadly ineptitude before and after Hurricane Katrina to see how the administration responds domestically to environmental disasters.
So, despite the red carpet that has been rolled out to receive the president and the first lady, many Africans – like African Americans – view the trip with a high degree of cynicism. They, like us, simply do not believe the hype.
Nicole Lee is a regular contributor to The Root.