South Africa: Hard Questions and Rough Dancing

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At a press conference with South African president Thabo Mbeki on Wednesday, American reporters asked about whether committing troops to Liberia would stretch U.S. forces to their limit given the protracted engagements in Iraq and Afghanistan. "My answer to people is that we won't overextend our troops, period," responded Bush quickly.

The White House tightly controls these press conferences — allowing only two questions — and Bush works hard to embarrass reporters who ask multi-part questions or try to follow-up. But perhaps sensing that his answer was curt and inadequate, the President circled back later after his host had answered another question and added that America had funded and trained African forces to handle situations just like the one in Liberia. "It's a sensible policy for us to continue that training mission," he said, "so that we never do get over-extended." Bush then reasserted his position from yesterday: The U.S. would help but he had yet to determine the exact level of help.

The White House isn't the only one that tightly controls these press conferences. While Mbeki opposed U.S. action in Iraq, the topic was never discussed, in public or private, despite the fact that protestors were in the streets denouncing the U.S. invasion ("Go away, we already have enough Bushes in Africa," read one placard). And President Bush did not criticize Mbeki for what some U.S. officials see as an overly soft approach towards neighboring Zimbabwe whose leader Robert Mugabe is accused of winning his last election through fraud and intimidation.

Mbeki has been reluctant to push Mugabe because bowing to Western pressure would cost Mbeki politically at home and diminish his standing amongAfrican leaders. In an interview with CNN last month, the South African leader pushed back at Secretary of State Colin Powell who wrote a critical article in The New York Times arguing that South Africa should be more active in Zimbabwe. "I think it is ill advised for him [Powell] to create the impression that he is directing what South Africa should do," said Mbeki. But today, there was none of that. "Sharp differences?" he said when a reporter tried to stir the pot. "I didn't know we had any sharp differences. We didn't fight about Zimbabwe."

In fact, Mbeki gave the president a nice political assist. When he was asked about Liberia he agreed that it was up to African nations to take the lead in peacekeeping. "We're not saying that this is a burden that just falls on the United States," he said. "It really ought to principally fall on us as Africans."

That is Bush's point exactly and having a prominent African leader say it releases some of the pressure on the U.S. President. Some might argue that Bush is looking for a way out of a deep commitment in Liberia, but Administration officials argue it is a sign of respect for leaders like Mbeki that Bush believes they can be trusted to handle their own affairs. Bush emphasized this point in his public remarks by praising the South African leader's good work inquelling violence in the Congo and Burundi.

The second of the two questions allowed American reporters was about Niger and the erroneous reports that Iraq was trying to acquire uranium there. The claim made it into the President's State of the Union address and has been a sore point for the White House for some time. Though members of his staff have been fumbling to answer questions about the bum information, the President was smart enough to stay miles away from an answer. He reasserted his main belief: that Saddam was a threat. To the extent he answered the question at all, he merely said: "There's no doubt in my mind that when it's all said and done the facts will show the world the truth. There's going to be, you know, a lot of attempts to try to rewrite history, and I can understand that. But I'm absolutely confident in the decision I made."

In this case, of course, the rewriting of history is to make it more accurate. When a reporter valiantly tried to follow up by asking if Bush still believed Iraq was trying to buy nuclear materials from Africa, he offered one of his signature shimmies: he answered another question. "One thing is for certain, he's [Saddam] not trying to buy anything right now." Then he re-focused his answer back on Saddam's fundamental threat.

The American press successfully thwarted, it was up to the African press to raise questions about AIDS and Zimbabwe, the issues Bush actually came to talk about.

Later in the day the president toured a Ford manufacturing plant. Tour is perhaps a generous term. That's what it was called on the schedule and that's what the workers at the plant were expecting, but Bush had other ideas. He was running uncharacteristically late for the rigidly on-time President. He left a lunch with Mbeki fifty minutes off the mark, and made up for it by cutting 80 minutes of personal time, but he saw a chance to clip a little more time by speeding up the tour.

After greeting some enthusiastic workers, many of whom showed Bush the multi-part handshake of the shop floor, he was off like a shot. Bush rushed so quickly through the plant that the photographers ushered in to capture the photo-op were sent scrambling, backing up with such furry to get out of his way that one nearly clipped the first lady. Clearly the president's torn calf muscle is healing nicely. "Was that a tour?" joked a White House aide when the clatter was over.

Afterward, the president sat with workers to hear about the plant's AIDS awareness program, a model in a country that some have accused of acting too slowly to admit and embrace the problem. Ford blew through the taboos surrounding the disease, pushing employees to get themselves and their families tested.

Sometimes the hardest part of being a President is sitting through the talent shows carefully selected by your host. When Jiang Zemin sang for the president during Bush's visit to Beijing last year, the look of pleasure and appreciation the President had to sustain must have left creases in his face. The dancing that can sometimes be required at state functions is particularly unwelcome for Bush, who doesn't really like to squeak across the parquet.

Wednesday night the president was challenged again. Visiting the U.S. ambassador's home for a dinner with African and American business leaders, the President and his wife were greeted in the foyer by a stairway full of African female singers. After shaking the hand of the lead singer, the president escalated through a range of embarrassing expressions as the women moved and swayed in the full arc of their womanhood. The performance ended with the singers pulling their shirts to two points at the breast.

White House correspondent John Dickerson is on the road with George W. Bush in Africa, from where he'll file reports throughout the President's five-day, five-country tour.

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