Essays on American politics and foreign policy

By Donald E. Nuechterlein

Donald Nuechterlein is a political scientist and writer who resides near Charlottesville, Virginia. He is the author of numerous books on American politics and foreign policy, including

  • Defiant Superpower: The New American Hegemony, 2005
  • America Recommitted: A Superpower Assesses its Role in a Turbulent World, 2000
  • A Cold War Odyssey, 1997


Donald Nuechterlein


JULY 2003

George Bush's trip to Africa last week had several foreign policy goals, not least to highlight his belated recognition that Africa's problems are the world's problems and, if ignored, could seriously threaten U.S. global interests.

Corrupt and dictatorial government in many African states, notably in Liberia, is responsible for massive economic privation and starvation. These conditions have led to numerous civil wars that killed additional millions. Wars between African states also take their human toll. Recently French troops, with Untied Nations blessing, intervened in the Congo to prevent guerrilla attacks by neighboring states seeking territorial gains.

Another scourge, HIV-AIDS, has spread to many parts of the continent, especially in South Africa and Botswana..

Skeptics ask why any president, Republican or Democrat, would choose to get involved in this mess, especially when America has so many other foreign policy problems to deal with. Specifically, why would George Bush want to send 2,000 Marines to Liberia to stabilize a chaotic political situation and end a bloody civil war?

Three factors account for Bush's new focus on Africa:

Following the debacle in March at the U. N. Security Council, when a majority of members declined to support a U.S. sponsored resolution authorizing it to use force to oust Saddam Hussein, Mr. Bush now hopes to persuade peoples and governments around the world that he is prepared to use our vast military and economic power for essentially humanitarian purposes.

Liberia is a logical place to start because America has a historical interest in its welfare: it helped to establish that land in the 1820s as a home for freed African slaves. Once a stable democracy, Liberia became a corrupt dictatorship under the leadership of Charles Taylor, an enterprising soldier who staged a coup a decade ago and then ruined the nation's economy. The result is malnutrition and even starvation for many Liberians.

If George Bush can force "regime change" in Liberia, and perhaps in Zimbabwe where another corrupt dictator, Robert Mugabe, rules, the condemnation of his earlier call for regime change in Iraq may not seem so radical. A new focus on Africa should also help the president cope with growing public anxiety, and congressional criticism, that the administration policy in Iraq is not working. Senator Joseph Lieberman, who is running for president in 2004, made that charge in an op-ed commentary last week in the Washington Post.

Earlier predictions from Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld's Pentagon that many troops would return home this fall were greatly exaggerated. The outgoing Army chief of staff, General Eric Shinseki, was publicly rebuked by Rumsfeld in February for telling a congressional committee that occupying Iraq after an invasion would take longer and require several hundred thousand troops. Shinseki's retirement was announced soon thereafter.

One problem is that other countries have not offered sufficient numbers of peacekeepers to reduce the American presence. Some of them, Italy and India, for example, want U.N. approval for their participation in Iraq. Canada, which has extensive experience in peacekeeping operations, will not send troops to Iraq without the U.N.'s blessing. Meanwhile, the daily killing of Americans in Iraq continues.

A third reason for the president's emphasis on Africa is his belief that it has been neglected too long by presidents of both parties. The White House recalls President Clinton's public apology in 1998 for not sending U.S. forces to Rwanda in the 1995 as part of a U.N. effort to stop genocide there, which took several million civilian lives. Mr. Bush also remembers the failed mission that his father initiated in Somalia in 1992 to feed starving millions and crush the local warlords who terrorized the country. Reinforcing the president in his desire to assist Africa were two key advisers, Secretary of State Colin Powell and Dr. Condoleezza Rice, the White House national security adviser, both African-Americans. Their, and the president's, efforts may not translate into additional black votes in the presidential election next year, but they will help to defuse the suspicion in many quarters that the president's "compassionate conservatism" doesn't include helping the starving, AIDS-wracked millions in Africa.

In light of Colin Powell's success in focusing presidential attention on Africa, it is ironic that the respected Washington journal, Foreign Policy, chose July to launch a major attack on Powell's conduct of foreign policy. Its cover shows an unflattering cartoon of Powell with the caption, "The Failure of U.S. Diplomacy." The magazine highlighted a blast at the State Department by Newt Gingrich, the irrepressible former speaker of the House of Representatives. He criticized the "Rogue State Department," specifically Powell, for failing to carrying out President Bush's wishes in foreign policy.

Washington skeptics speculate that Gingrich is fronting for senior officials at the Defense Department who are unhappy with Powell's growing influence on administration policy, not just on Africa where the Pentagon is reluctant to commit forces, but also in the Middle East where they fault him for urging the president to press ahead with the "road map' for peace between Israel and the Palestinians. Neo-conservatives in and out of the Pentagon oppose U.S. pressure on Israel to make concessions for peace.

As the task of occupying Iraq becomes more daunting and with the president planning to send peacekeepers to yet another part of the world, the White House needs to face the reality that U.S. military forces are stretched too thin around the world.

One of two things must happen soon to avoid serious morale problems among the troops: either increase the size of the Army, or reduce deployments in Korea, Japan, and Germany (where reductions have occurred). Troop strength in Afghanistan has already been reduced and may decline further. This leaves a poor legacy in that hapless country, which has not yet recovered from the U.S. war on terrorism.

File last modified on Thursday, 12-AUG-2004 09:00 PM EST

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