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President Bush's Africa Legacy: Q&A with Todd Moss

October 27, 2008

CGD senior fellow Todd MossA White House Summit on International Development took stock last week of the Bush administration’s efforts to reduce global poverty and promote economic development around the world, especially in Africa. CGD senior fellow Todd Moss, who recently returned to CGD after serving as Deputy Assistant Secretary for Africa at the U.S. Department of State, discusses the Bush administration’s Africa legacy and challenges for the next administration.

Q: What has the Bush administration done to strengthen U.S. engagement in Africa?

A: I don’t think it’s too strong to say that President Bush’s Africa policy is the most distinguished foreign policy legacy of the administration. Although few expected such interest eight years ago, the president has clearly been deeply and personally committed to strengthening U.S.-Africa relations. We have not only seen U.S. assistance levels to Africa skyrocket, but the whole debate about foreign aid and Africa has changed.

President Bush Greets President Sirleaf at White House Summit on International Aid (White House photo by Eric Draper)Q: How so?

A: A decade ago, Washington was still arguing about whether foreign aid was a waste or not and whether we had any real interests in Africa. Today, the discussion is about how to innovate, build partnerships, and fix our aid system. The President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) and the Millennium Challenge Account (MCA) have been game-changers. Africa’s debt problem is essentially fixed. We have seen a huge spike in American trade and increased private investment. The U.S. Overseas Private Investment Corp. has helped to launch more than a dozen private equity funds targeting the continent. American thinking on Africa has changed completely. It’s no coincidence that views of the U.S. are still overwhelmingly positive across Africa.

Q: How has the creation of the United States Africa Command (AFRICOM) affected U.S. engagement in the region?

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A: AFRICOM unfortunately started amidst a whirl of confusion and misperception. The creation of a new combatant command is just an internal reorganization of global responsibilities for the U.S. military, rather than a new push to militarize our relationships. The controversy over headquarters’ location was a distraction from the real question of what the U.S. military should be doing in Africa.

Q: Is that changing?

A: Not really. AFRICOM will focus on pretty much the same thing the U.S. military was doing before: training peacekeepers and helping build military capacity with partner countries. There’s a temptation to try to free ride on the Pentagon budget to get extra development projects, but there aren’t many people—in the military or on the civilian side—who think AFRICOM should be playing a lead role in development efforts. As for the location controversy, this is not nearly as important as people tend to think. AFRICOM is not a base and comes with zero new troops. Given technology, it doesn’t really matter where it is housed. For example, U.S. Central Command, which is responsible for the Middle East, is based in Tampa, Florida. AFRICOM is currently in Germany. It may stay there for a while or move to Africa or, most likely, find a home back here in the United States.

Q: What challenges will the next U.S. president face in Africa?

A: U.S. interests in Africa are to promote democracy, to support African initiatives to end conflict and fight terrorism, to address the continent’s enormous health challenges, and to expand economic opportunity. These interests are broad and growing, so I’m hopeful that the next administration will continue to engage proactively with the continent. The United States has a large number of real partners in Africa that will require ongoing support, and a few lingering problems—Zimbabwe, Somalia, and Darfur come to mind—that will need sustained attention and creativity. The pressure on the next administration to reduce U.S. investments in Africa will be enormous given the financial situation and pressure to focus on domestic problems. If the aid budget comes under pressure, we may see even more narrowly focused programs.

Q: How should the next U.S. president overcome these challenges?

A: The new president will need to resist this pressure to cut back U.S. engagement with Africa. But he also will need to better balance U.S. activities on the continent to better reflect the full range of U.S. interests. American aid has to be about more than just health and counter-terrorism. I also hope that the new president will allow time for a fair assessment of the MCA. Even though disbursements got off to a slow start, the MCA is an elegant idea, and it’s too early to judge definitively if it’s working or not.

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Photo of Todd Moss
Visiting Fellow