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Bush in Africa

President Bush’s visit to Africa this week provided a powerful reminder of the basic values that animate the American enterprise and continue to make this country, for all its flaws and missteps, the indispensable leader in the cause of human freedom. It’s also a reminder to Bush’s critics — and we count ourselves among them — that the president of the United States is more than the sum of his ideological parts. In visiting a onetime Senegalese slave port, plunging himself into the South African AIDS crisis and pledging American intervention in the Liberian civil war, Bush showed that he is capable of summoning the best in the American spirit. All Americans should unite in saluting him for it, even as we demand that he follow through.

Africa today is the ultimate test of the human conscience. The near-biblical scale of the continent’s suffering — the unspeakable warfare in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Liberia and Sudan, the brutally corrupt repression in Zimbabwe, the incomprehensible ravages of AIDS throughout central and southern Africa — reduces our pretenses to social betterment, both liberal and conservative, to a mockery. Even beginning to address Africa’s challenges seems to be a monumental task.

Bush was an unlikely candidate to take on that task. He took office as an untested newcomer with little knowledge of or interest in the world beyond our borders. He was openly dismissive of past efforts to use American power as a force for social change worldwide. A product of the Republicans’ vaunted Southern Strategy, he had little support among blacks and scant record of concern for the Third World. Even after he was unexpectedly transformed by the events of September 11, 2001, into a muscular defender of American interests abroad, there was little reason to expect his new internationalism would extend to the suffering peoples of Africa.

True, a five-day presidential visit is not in itself proof of a basic shift in attitude. Cynics argue that this trip was no more than a quick diversion, meant to distract attention from global criticism of the president’s broader posture on the world stage. Five days of photo-ops, critics say, will not undo the corrosive effects of two years of bullying unilateralism.

In fact, however, Bush’s move into Africa has already gone beyond photo-ops. He has pledged a $15 billion initiative to fight AIDS on the continent, giving an enormous boost to that all-important struggle. In his meeting with the South African president, Thabo Mbeki, whose record on fighting AIDS is troubling, he put American prestige behind reform. His visit to the onetime slave port at Goree Island in Senegal, too, has symbolic value of great importance. As a former Southern governor and leader of the Republican Party of Strom Thurmond and Trent Lott, his visit is a gesture of contrition that speaks for all Americans.

The next challenge is Liberia. Citizens of that bleeding nation were dancing in the streets this week to celebrate Bush’s pledge of intervention. But the president has yet to spell out what he intends to do. Liberia desperately needs American troops. Bush must show he means business, and fast.

If Bush’s critics are wrong about the honesty of the president’s intentions, they are right about much else, particularly in his execution and follow-through. We’ve learned a great deal in recent weeks about Bush’s willingness to plunge ahead on the basis of flawed, ideologically skewed intelligence. We’ve seen the chaos that ensues in places like Afghanistan and Iraq when military plans are not backed up by clear-cut nation-building plans. We’ve learned that to make good on our intentions, we need the international good will and cooperation that can only come from working with our allies and with institutions like the United Nations. The stubborn unilateralism that administration conservatives like to think of as hard-headed realism is turning out to be, in fact, quite unrealistic.

It’s time for the president’s critics to acknowledge that there’s real sincerity behind his much-mocked compassionate conservatism. It’s also time for the president to acknowledge that intentions aren’t everything, and that he’s made some serious mistakes along the way.

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