Tuesday, January 29, 2008

In which we comment on the State of the Union as seen through the lens of America's relationship with Africa

The State of the Union of the United States of America.

For those people in need, here is the text of U.S. President George W. Bush’s final State of the Union speech, so you can read along with yourself. Also, Foreign Policy supplies a very handy list of the number of times Bush has peppered his seven State of the Union speeches with keywords – Iraq, terrorists, Osama bin Laden. The list allows you to gauge the importance of these issues over the years and where the Bush administration’s attention lay. (Hint: the term “freedom” is a big winner.) One problem is that Africa doesn’t make the list. I Don’t know if this is due to lack of references or what. (I could go back and count, but that sounds to be a rather painful undertaking.)

Finally, for those who don’t know, this is why Presidents must make the State of the Union speech, and why journalists must capitalize it.

First comment: In response to the newly negotiated free trade pact with Columbia, Bush claimed that if Congress fails to pass this agreement, “we will embolden the purveyors of false populism in our hemisphere,” a reference to Hugo Chavez of Venezuela. Purveyors of false populism? I’ve always thought his speech writers were more than a little hokey – Patriot Act, Operation Enduring Freedom and all – but they definitely could have done better than this.

Fighting terrorists and leaders who terrorize
Let’s get on with the speech:

We are engaged in the defining ideological struggle of the 21st century. The terrorists oppose every principle of humanity and decency that we hold dear. Yet in this war on terror, there is one thing we and our enemies agree on: In the long run, men and women who are free to determine their own destinies will reject terror and refuse to live in tyranny.

I’ve never believed this. Fighting terrorism – with words, ideas and weapons – will definitely be a struggle, but it won’t be the defining issue of our time. For that, I think we have to look at the day’s major news event: the burial, with state honors, of Gen. Suharto of Indonesia. The U.S. government spent some 30 years (we hope) attempting to juggle the importance of befriending a strong leader who kept his potentially chaotic country together, but had a serious bloodthirsty streak. (Not just during the invasion of East Timor, either.)

We’ve all come a long way since the end of the Cold War and we understand a lot more about the potentially volatile features of supposedly stable states run by strongmen: the blatant corruption, the summary justice, the non-existent institutions.

The problem is strongmen are not going to go away. There are people in every country that carry a certain warm spot for authority. Perhaps it’s the hope of stability in a multi-ethnic country; distaste for the often-messy and vacuous side of participatory government; the myth that “directed” economies run better; the desire for law and order. Maybe some countries are best run by them. Maybe not.

This much I do know. Leaders of governments and international businesses, NGOs and other non-governmental institutions need to come to terms with how best to approach these strongmen and their people. Sure, I believe that “freedom” is good, but unlike President Bush I don’t lay some spiritual significance to its creation. Sensible people will always argue what it means to be “free.”

In real-world circumstances, governments and organizations have to make tough decisions. The things we now know about bad governance – another catchword, I understand – should help us come up with nuanced conclusions. This is why I think the debate on how to deal with dictators, not terror, will carry us into the near future.

U.S. opposes genocide and supports freedom
Anyway, let’s get to the concrete issues of foreign policy presented in Bush’s speech. Scanning this year’s State of the Union, one has to follow all the way to the bottom of the text until Bush mentions the world beyond the United States and/or the Middle East.

From the speech (Applause has been added by the White House.):

Protecting our nation from the dangers of a new century requires more than good intelligence and a strong military. It also requires changing the conditions that breed resentment and allow extremists to prey on despair. So America is using its influence to build a freer, more hopeful, and more compassionate world. This is a reflection of our national interest; it is the calling of our conscience.

America opposes genocide in Sudan. (Applause.) We support freedom in countries from Cuba and Zimbabwe to Belarus and Burma. (Applause.)

America is leading the fight against global poverty, with strong education initiatives and humanitarian assistance. We've also changed the way we deliver aid by launching the Millennium Challenge Account. This program strengthens democracy, transparency, and the rule of law in developing nations, and I ask you to fully fund this important initiative. (Applause.)

From the Council on Foreign Relations, here is the response of J. Anthony Holmes, former U.S. ambassador to Burkina Faso:

President Bush went through a short checklist of African issues in his speech, reiterating long-standing administration policies and programs in Africa. He restated U.S. opposition to “genocide in Sudan,” while proposing nothing to end it. He expressed his support for “freedom in Zimbabwe,” but did not suggest anything new that the United States would do to achieve it. The president endorsed U.S. leadership in the global fight against poverty but did not indicate an enhanced U.S. commitment.

He called on Congress to “fully fund” his signature Millennium Challenge Corporation, which despite solid bipartisan support has been allocated not more than half of the funding that the administration has requested in the past several years. He also urged Congress to pass a new law that would, for the first time, permit U.S. taxpayers’ funds to purchase food surpluses generated by foreign farmers. (To date, the United States can purchase excess farm production only from American farmers.) While he mentioned his anti-malaria initiative in Africa, Bush reaffirmed the U.S. commitment to the fight against HIV/AIDS and asked Congress to appropriate $30 billion over the next five years for that battle.

While signaling his strong support for continued U.S. engagement in Africa, the president did not acknowledge the difficult tradeoffs that must be made, in terms of both policy concerns and resource allocations, as the U.S. government sets its international priorities for the coming year.

Back to Bush’s speech

America is leading the fight against global hunger. Today, more than half the world's food aid comes from the United States. And tonight, I ask Congress to support an innovative proposal to provide food assistance by purchasing crops directly from farmers in the developing world, so we can build up local agriculture and help break the cycle of famine. (Applause.)

America is leading the fight against disease. With your help, we're working to cut by half the number of malaria-related deaths in 15 African nations. And our Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief is treating 1.4 million people. We can bring healing and hope to many more. So I ask you to maintain the principles that have changed behavior and made this program a success. And I call on you to double our initial commitment to fighting HIV/AIDS by approving an additional $30 billion over the next five years. (Applause.)

From CFR again, here is the response from Pulitzer-prize winning journalist Laurie Garrett:

The key announcement made in regard to global health issues was President Bush’s call for a doubling of funding for the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR): this is not new. The call to reauthorize funding for PEPFAR at twice its current level, bringing it to $30 billion, for five years worth of HIV/AIDS programs in 15 countries sounds impressive, but it was included in the White House FY09 budget request, sent to Congress months ago. In both the House and Senate Democrats well surpassed the Bush administration request, counter-offering $50 billion. In effect, then, the President was asking Congress to reduce PEPFAR spending by $20 billion.

The President mentioned plans to reduce malaria illness by half in sixteen countries. Here, again, he has backed off from higher ground. In prior speeches, Bush called for “eradicating malaria illness in Africa,” a far larger goal.

Light at the end of the tunnel
We won’t have Bush to kick around much longer. He came into office claiming his administration wasn’t going to try and change the world. Rather, it was going to do a few things well. Admittedly, Sept. 11, 2001 amended Bush’s dreams. In the turmoil, he found a new lens to look at the world through: terrorism.

This has lit more than a few wildfires. But those issues remain largely outside this blog’s purview. Outside the Middle East and a few other “hotbed” states – the Philippines, Pakistan, Somalia, for example – the administration has refused to admit the rest of the world doesn’t fit snugly into their boxes. Thus, these non-aligned-to-the-war-on-terror states have been largely ignored as the administration has scrambled to keep its many fronts going.

This may not be a terrible thing. As the U.S. has embroiled itself in two wars, the rest of the world has learned to move on. The attraction of terrorism (to the media and to radicals) will wear off as it had in the past. Perhaps the next big issue will be the economic and political rise of those second- and third-world countries this administration – and, frankly, its predecessors –has largely ignored. Talk about world changing.

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