When rebel forces advanced on Monrovia in June, with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees recoiling from a ‘horrific’ situation, the Bush Administration was loath to send in a peacemaking force. Susan Rice, the former Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs under Clinton, said she failed to ‘understand what they’re waiting for’. But it was plain enough – Bush wanted Charles Taylor to pack his bags and the whole Liberian mess to go away. The fighting was already intense when Bush embarked on an African tour, committing the United States to what could become a long drawn-out campaign against terrorism on the continent, but he remained eager to avoid any commitments in Liberia. Unless, of course, Liberia turns out to serve a new strategic purpose in Africa.

The Liberian conflict has focused attention on the Bush Administration’s strategy after Iraq. Early criticisms of Bush took him to task for his ‘unilateralism’, but the post-September 11 ‘Bush doctrine’ has been more multilateralist, collective and multidimensional than his Presidency first suggested. Nonetheless, with half the US Army’s deployable forces engaged in peacekeeping operations in dozens of countries (150,000 in Iraq and Afghanistan alone), Bush needs to spread the load, and must decide where to position the US forces currently stationed in more than ninety states around the world.

Bush’s African safari was about a number of multilateral projects: increasing Africa’s contribution to US oil imports from 18 to 25 per cent over ten years; disbursing $15 billion to 14 countries (12 of them African) over the next three years to combat Aids; honouring the US Millennium Challenge Account’s target of increasing foreign aid (mostly to Africa) by 50 per cent by 2006 – the largest increase in foreign aid since the Marshall Plan, providing, in Colin Powell’s words, ‘billions of dollars for developing countries that are on the right path for democracy and the free enterprise system’; and widening the African Growth and Opportunity Act to allow more African products into the US. These US promissory notes look impressive, except that Congress has already taken some of the gloss off them by cutting back on the Aids and Millennium Challenge Account budgets.

Bush’s African safari was also intended to aid the hunt for terrorists considering new operational bases in Africa. The US has already been active on this front. The Pentagon is said to be examining the scope for co-operating with other countries in order to set up small, mobile, anti-terrorist strike squads. Rumsfeld has spoken of the US leading or contributing to ‘a cadre of people in the world who would like to participate in peacekeeping or peacemaking’ and, just before Bush’s African visit, a Marine Corps general spelled out the role for the continent that Washington has in mind: ‘Africa is a growing problem. As we pursue the global war on terrorism, we’re going to have to go where the terrorists are. And we’re seeing some evidence, at least preliminary, that more and more of these large uncontrolled, ungoverned areas’ – in Africa – ‘are going to be potential havens for that kind of activity.’

Consider the markers the US has put down: overfly and refuelling rights, negotiated a few years ago, in Ghana, Senegal, Gabon, Namibia, Uganda and Zambia; in ‘good guy’ countries like Botswana, Uganda and Senegal; in oil-rich Nigeria; in Morocco and Tunisia (enhancing military ties); in Mali and Algeria (long-term access to bases, or so-called ‘bare-bones’ camps which the Americans can use for periodic training, or from which to strike at terrorists); in Djibouti (tightening up the 1800-strong force assigned to counter-terrorism in the Horn of Africa); off the African coasts (more naval patrols); in East Africa ($100 million for anti-terrorism); and in Mauritania, Mali, Niger and Chad (where later this year the US will begin a $6.25 million operation to provide training, radios and trucks to company-sized Army units). The Pentagon talks of a ‘family of bases’ in Africa: forward-operating bases, perhaps with an airfield nearby, able to house three to five thousand troops, or more lightly equipped bases where Special Forces, Marines or an infantry company could land and set up a mission.

Together, these initiatives prepare the way for a new role in a continent that Bush has deliberately neglected. Militarily, the US can handle most of this deployment, but politically it will need local allies (anti-Americanism is ubiquitous), and the more of them it recruits, the more probably the authority of Africa’s two new major continental organisations, the African Union and the New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD), will be weakened. These assorted tactical moves and political processes signal Washington’s new strategic focus on Africa – the first since the end of the Cold War.

25 July

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