D A K A R , Senegal, July 8, 2003 -- President Bush has embarked on a widely heralded visit to Africa, but early in his presidency he seemed to have little interest in the region.
An appearance in Göteborg, Sweden, on June 14, 2001, did little to change that impression. "Africa is a nation that suffers from incredible disease," he said — referring to Africa as a country, instead of a continent.
His aides said anyone can misspeak, and the president denies he has ever lacked interest in Africa.
On June 26 of this year, Bush said, "The United States believes in the great potential of Africa."
The president's top two foreign policy advisers, Secretary of State Colin Powell and National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, are passionate advocates for involvement with Africa.
Christian evangelicals and missionary workers in Africa also have the president's ear. They urged him to help the almost 30 million people there who have the AIDS virus.
"I really think that the president's motivation in this whole AIDS response really comes out of his Christian faith … and his Christian belief that we need to help our neighbors and care for the widows and orphans in particular in Africa," said Richard Stearns, president of the Christian charity World Vision.
Still, it came as a surprise when the president announced that he wanted to triple spending on AIDS overseas, primarily in Africa. During his State of the Union address in January, he said: "I ask the Congress to commit $15 billion over the next five years."
Looking to the ‘Motherland’
The president also proposed more financial help and trade with African countries that root out corruption. American companies have been lobbying for more trade there.
"Over 100,000 U.S. jobs depend on exports to Africa," said Susan Rice, a former U.S. assistant secretary of state for Africa. "And we export more to Africa today than to all the former Soviet Union combined, including Russia."
The president's aides say Africa is also important to him because it is important to African-Americans — even if they did vote overwhelmingly against him in the last election.
"It is the motherland, of course, a source of cultural pride for a substantial part of America's population, and the president cares about that," said Rice.
The president's aides say there is yet one more reason for his trip, which will take him from Senegal to South Africa, Botswana, Uganda and Nigeria before he returns home on Saturday night.
At a time when many people fear the United States as a warlike power, the president wants to remind them that he is also interested in peaceful pursuits, in improving the lives of people whether they are — strategically important or not.