Four days into the new Administration, President George W. Bush in effect declared war on Africa and Africans (though the corporate media failed to notice). Bush's very first foreign policy action was to defund international public health and family planning services by withdrawing US money from providers who also offer reproductive health education and abortion services using money from other sources. Bush's next action was to place under review an executive order signed by President Clinton that supports African countries' right to import or produce generic versions of HIV/AIDS medications that are still under US patent. The reversal of this order–done in the name of American pharmaceutical companies–would be the moral equivalent of imposing the death penalty on 25 million Africans.
These actions constitute an assault on Africans' health at a time when the continent faces the world's greatest health crisis, and they suggest a return to the blatantly anti-African policies of the Reagan era, which were characterized by a fabricated perception of Africa as a social welfare case. During the campaign, Bush and his advisers repeatedly stressed that Africa did not fit into the strategic interests of America, and Bush said during the debates that Africa was not a priority. (He did, however, announce his qualified support for debt relief for poor countries.)
Vice President Cheney's perspective on Africa is epitomized by his support for keeping Nelson Mandela in prison and his opposition to sanctions against apartheid South Africa while he was a member of Congress. More recently, as CEO of Halliburton, the world's largest oil services company, he was complicit in lining the pockets of the dictatorship of the late Gen. Sani Abacha in Nigeria. National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice was, until this year, a director of Chevron, another oil company that buttressed military rule in Nigeria and even hired the regime's soldiers, who fired on unarmed protesters at the sites of its operations. (A Chevron oil tanker bears her name!) With Bush himself coming from the oil industry, as do so many in his Cabinet, oil is likely to top the list of US interests in Africa as defined by the Bush "oiligarchy."
Neither Rice nor Secretary of State Colin Powell, both African-Americans, has demonstrated a particular interest in or special knowledge of Africa (General Powell's recent courtesy calls with generals Paul Kagame of Rwanda and Joseph Kabila of Congo notwithstanding). Moreover, both Powell and Rice are loyal Republicans with a shared orientation toward international affairs that derives from a narrow militaristic understanding of security. They are also unilateralists at a time when the need in Africa is for multilateral support for peace and security. Meanwhile, the basic illegitimacy of the Bush Administration in the eyes of the vast majority of African-Americans will make it more difficult for it to be taken seriously on democratization in Africa, support for which should be central to US policy toward the continent.
In the context of a Bush Administration and a divided Congress, breaking through the systemic US disdain for Africa will not happen unless there are dramatic shifts in public perceptions comparable to those of the 1980s regarding apartheid in South Africa. Public pressure will make the difference, just as it did then. AIDS must be seen for what it is: a consequence of global apartheid, in which basic human rights, including the right to quality healthcare, are denied along the color line. On debt cancellation, activists may find support in unexpected places: They can look not only to large segments of the religious community with close ties to the Republicans but also to Republicans skeptical of multilateral institutions, including the World Bank and the IMF.
The real foreign policy priority for the United States is the threat presented by the structural inequities that perpetuate war and poverty in a world where race, place, class and gender are the major determinants of people's access to the full spectrum of human rights. It will take democratizing the US foreign policy to make Washington understand this and public pressure to get government to act upon it.