I had never realized how much America is on the minds of those who have never stepped foot on American soil and may never have the means to go. People here in South Africa are concerned that the U.S. will purchase fewer South African exports if the country goes into recession later this year. Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton’s historic presidential race graces the front pages of major South African newspapers. Last week, the Cape Times led an economic story on the fluctuating rand by comparing it to the U.S. dollar. As for me, I’ve been told that as an American, I am “powerful.” One of my Congolese friends says we “are on top of the world.”
It’s this burgeoning understanding of America’s world status, both real and imagined, that led me to reconsider President Bush’s six-day, five-country tour of the continent last week. On one hand, I understand that foreign intervention and aid is inherently political and I shouldn’t hold Bush up to a higher standard than I would those world leaders whose views more closely mirror my own (Think Clinton and the Rwandan genocide). With all the negative news on Africa, even South Africa, which likes to think of itself as the continent’s leading country, perhaps it’s fitting that Bush would highlight his successes, and instead send the secretary of state to Kenya, thereby bringing some much needed good news to the continent, and in turn creating some good press for himself. Yet, I can’t help but feel that this trip was a missed opportunity for the president to use the media attention to highlight civil unrest and call for peace in those countries in dire need of intervention, namely Kenya, Congo and Sudan.
While Bush has been honored like a king for delivering speeches highlighting American aid for AIDS and malaria, Condoleeza Rice has been in Kenya offering incentives to end violence between rival ethnic groups who clashed last December after a disputed presidential election. So far, more than 1,000 people have died in what was regarded as one of the continent’s more stable countries, a place that “already receives more than half a billion dollars of annual American aid, [which] fit[s] in with President Bush’s approach of rewarding countries who embrace democracy and American-approved development programs” [NYT]. The violence in Kenya did thrust Bush into the role of peacemaker, to some degree, but he didn’t announce that Rice would visit Kenya until the eve of his big trip.
The “bloodshed” in Darfur has sparked international outrage, and some have called for boycotting the summer Olympics in China for its business ties to resource-rich Sudan. It took awhile, but Beijing has even begun shifting its position on Darfur to quietly push Sudan toward accepting increased peacekeeping forces. Still, the U.S. is seen as having the biggest influence over the country, yet has not sent an ambassador, has invested very little, and has “slapped progressively tougher sanctions” on the Sudanese government. The New York Times reports that the Bush administration seems divided on what to do about Darfur. While advocacy groups and Congress are encouraging the administration to step up sanctions, some in the administration argue that Sudan is a crucial U.S. ally in fighting terrorism and “cannot be allowed to become more isolated and further beyond the West’s orbit than it already is.”
The general consensus here in South Africa is that people appreciate the U.S. for investing so much time and money on this continent. It’s been 30 years since a sitting president has visited Liberia, but the people are reportedly grateful for the attention Bush brought with him on Thursday, and remember his call to send more American troops to Liberia in 2003, thereby helping to push a warlord out of the country. But with all eyes on us, we have a greater responsibility to not just highlight past victories, but also call for peace where it seems to elude even the most stable countries. It might not be politically popular to do so, but this is a part of the world where America’s influence still matters, even when the president is a lame duck.