Bush departs for Africa

February 15, 2008 7:55:10 PM PST
President Bush, embarking on a trip to Africa on Friday, said the United States has a moral imperative as well as economic, political and national security interests in fighting poverty, disease and corruption across the continent. The president and his wife, Laura, will arrive Saturday on a five-country trip. The first stop is the West African nation of Benin, followed by visits to Tanzania, Rwanda, Ghana and Liberia.

It will be Bush's second trip to Africa and his wife's fifth.

With backing from Congress, Bush is behind an emergency HIV/AIDS response that is the largest in history to target an infectious disease. He is now trying to sharply increase that response, from the already committed $15 billion, to another $30 billion to be spent over the next five years.

"I couldn't live with myself if I didn't develop an effective strategy and call upon the American people to help," Bush said in a discussion with reporters at the White House on Thursday.

Bush, nearing the end of a presidency dominated by the war in Iraq, is proud of the administration's humanitarian foreign policy. He often talks about how many Americans are unaware of their own generosity abroad, and he makes a point to publicize the country's giving nature. The president is also behind a major effort to reduce malaria, which is a major killer of young children in Africa.

"When you see human suffering, it's based upon something that affects your heart," Bush said. "And so that's why I've made the decisions I've made."

Bush said that easing poverty in Africa would undercut the efforts of terrorists to recruit new members. "If there's hopelessness, they have a better chance to recruit," the president said.

Bush covered a range of other topics with the reporters.

Among them: -He expressed frustration at the plodding deployment of a joint African Union-United Nations peacekeeping mission in Sudan's Darfur region. Only about 9,000 of an authorized 26,000 troops and police have arrived. Conflict in the region has led the killings of more than 200,000 people over nearly five years, and has driven 2.5 million from their homes. Bush pointed blame at both the Sudanese government and at other nations for not supplying enough pressure.

-Bush said no decisions are imminent about Africom, the new Africa Command that is based in Stuttgart, Germany. Liberia has publicly offered to host a headquarters, while other African nations have reservations about where the command would be based and whether it would give the U.S. too much influence.

The president said the command will not be a traditional military-style command, and will integrate a State Department component. "We're in the process of making sure we understand what that integration means, and then evaluating if and where facilities will be built. It's on my radar screen," Bush said.

-Bush acknowledged that Zimbabwe has only gotten worse since his visit to Africa in 2003. President Robert Mugabe has become increasingly authoritarian, spearheading media control and takeovers of white-owned farms. Bush described him in a speech Thursday as a discredited dictator who "presides over food shortages, staggering inflation, and harsh repression." In the interview, Bush said flatly: "Mr. Mugabe has ruined a country."