Feature

Grading the President: A View From Africa

In Africa, American presidents are generally measured against their predecessors. Across the region today, thousands of men born in the early 1960s carry the name of former President John F. Kennedy, still remembered as an advocate of independence and decolonization. Former presidents Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter remain deeply admired and respected in Africa. They ...

In Africa, American presidents are generally measured against their predecessors. Across the region today, thousands of men born in the early 1960s carry the name of former President John F. Kennedy, still remembered as an advocate of independence and decolonization. Former presidents Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter remain deeply admired and respected in Africa. They not only took the time to visit the continent but also demonstrated a genuine concern for the needs of its people, and for the underdog in general. President George W. Bush, by contrast, is ranked with figures such as his father, and former presidents Lyndon B. Johnson and Richard Nixon, who could not find Africa on the map except as a sideshow to the Cold War or as a place of strategic value because of its oil, gold, diamonds, uranium, and other precious minerals.

The democratic revolutions in Africa have been due in no small measure to U.S. pressure — a contribution that Africa’s people, if not their leaders, have generally appreciated. In many countries in Africa, such as Kenya, the United States has effectively used its clout in the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund to foster reforms. But Africans increasingly wonder whether this pressure for change has been for the benefit of the African people or for the benefit of U.S. political and commercial interests. Trade liberalization has opened the door to a flood of imports from the United States, Europe, and Asia — many of which undermine local industry. At the same time, industrialized countries maintain protectionist policies that keep many African products off the global market. The present administration has pledged to push the U.S. Congress to extend the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) beyond its 2008 expiration date. But some trade unions complain that the AGOA, which offers tangible incentives for African countries to liberalize their economies in exchange for greater access to the U.S. market, includes no protections for labor rights and has largely benefited foreign-owned businesses based in Africa.

And then there is the war against Iraq. Africa generally supported the U.S. attack on Afghanistan as a legitimate action in the global campaign against terrorism. But Bush has been unable to sell the attack on Iraq in the same light. One of the few African countries to join the “coalition of the willing” is Ethiopia. But that support seems part of a calculated effort to win U.S. backing in Ethiopia’s disputes with the collapsed Somali state, which is believed to provide a bridgehead for Middle Eastern terrorist incursions into East Africa and the Horn. Even in a country such as Kenya, which has felt the brunt of terrorist attacks against U.S. and Israeli interests (the 1998 U.S. Embassy bombing and the 2002 Paradise Hotel bombing), there is deep suspicion that the war in Iraq was an attempt to seize Iraqi oil or to finish the job that President George H.W. Bush failed to conclude in the 1991 Gulf War. More broadly, the war reinforced the impression that this president holds multilateralism in utter contempt, useful only where it could be used to advance narrow U.S. interests.

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