'Powell's Africa Trip Helps Bush Mend Fences with U.S. Blacks'

  • Share
  • Read Later

Powell talks to Mali's Foreign Minister Modibo Sidibe at the airport in Bamako

TIME.com: Why is Secretary of State Colin Powell visiting Africa right now?

Jay Branegan: It's an interesting symbolic gesture on his part, because one of the Bush administration's cardinal tenets on taking office was that the most important relationships would be the big-power ones with our friends. President Bush said quite unapologetically that Africa would not be a priority for his administration. And yet Secretary Powell is making this trip before even taking a major swing through Europe, or Asia or even Latin America.

It could be seen as part of an effort to repair relations that were damaged on the campaign trail. President Bush got far less of the black vote than the two previous Republican candidates, and he believes he deserved a greater share. And certainly, among black community leaders the rhetorical and symbolic gesture that Africa has not been forgotten will be welcomed. Of course, some will ask, where's the beef? Is this simply going to be a symbolic gesture, or does the administration plan to seriously engage with some of Africa's many problems? And the jury is still out on that one. President Bush was roundly criticized for ponying up only $200 million to Kofi Annan's international fund to fight AIDS in Africa and elsewhere in the developing world, but Powell insists that was just a down-payment.

Despite the gesture, there is unlikely to be much commitment in the Bush administration to engage in what some call the "quagmire" issues in Africa. But there's not much by way of low-hanging fruit to pick when it comes to addressing Africa's complex problems. No one questions Secretary Powell's commitment to Africa, but the problems are so immense and the relationships so new that without the full commitment of the President driving all the cabinet agencies actively involved in this — as President Clinton did — it's not really going to be enough even if the State Department remains energized on Africa.

Why is Washington displaying such an interest on this trip in talking about the civil war in Sudan?

Well, the Sudan has been a miserable tragedy for more than a decade, but I think the reason it's suddenly looming large on Washington's radar is because of an unlikely alliance between black activists and right-wing Christians taking up the issues. (The Muslim government in the north is committing atrocities against civilians in the predominantly Christian and animist south, including kidnapping people and selling them as slaves.) You have regular protests outside Sudan's embassy in Washington, and some of those arrested there are being defended by a legal double team of Johnnie Cochran and Ken Starr. And one of the Christian groups working down there is Samaritan's First, which is headed by Franklin Graham, son of Billy. Sudanese government forces have even bombed Graham's hospital. And of course, Al Sharpton went down there to witness slavery, and many more black leaders in the U.S. have begun to speak out on the Sudan. So some of the President's political advisers have said that getting involved in diplomatic efforts to end the Sudan civil war, and sending humanitarian assistance to the south, is a win-win scenario for the Bush administration, because it improves his credibility in the black community at the same time as shoring up his support among activists on the religious right.