In Africa, Bush denies intent to build bases

Posted in Broader Middle East , Africa | 21-Feb-08 | Author: Sheryl Gay Stolberg| Source: International Herald Tribune

Humanitarian activist Sir Bob Geldof (R) attends a lunch with President Bush (3rd L), Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice (foreground) and Peace Corps volunteers working in Ghana, at the Ambassador's residence in Accra, February 20, 2008.

ACCRA, Ghana: Traveling across Africa this week, President George W. Bush has been a little like Santa Claus, a benevolent figure from another land handing out gifts - hundreds of millions of dollars in American foreign aid - and generating smiles wherever he goes.

But here in the capital city of Ghana on Wednesday, the smiles stopped for a moment as Bush confronted skepticism about American military policy and his AIDS initiative.

Bush used a news conference here to address head-on the widespread suspicion that the United States plans to establish military bases in Africa as it expands its strategic role on the continent. And for the first time, he suggested that he might consider dropping a requirement that one-third of AIDS prevention dollars be spent on abstinence programs, but only if he was convinced the approach was not working.

"I know there's rumors in Ghana, 'All Bush is coming to do is to try to convince you to put a big military base here,' " Bush said at a news conference with President John Kufuor of Ghana. "That's baloney. As they say in Texas, that's bull."

The suspicion grows out of the Bush administration's plan to establish Africom, a command headquarters that the Pentagon says would involve only operational and planning offices to help train African troops.

Even so, there is broad concern in countries like Ghana, where memories of colonial rule are still fresh, that the United States wants to use the command as the first step toward putting American troops on the continent, possibly in a move to gain access to African oil or counter the growing influence of China.

Only Liberia, which Bush intends to visit on Thursday, has expressed interest in playing host to the Africom headquarters, but the Pentagon says for now, the headquarters will remain in Stuttgart. Still, Bush said: "That doesn't mean we won't develop some kind of office here in Africa. We haven't made our minds up."

Also Wednesday, for the first time on the trip, Bush faced tough questioning from an African reporter about his administration's requirement that one-third of the AIDS initiative's prevention funds be spent on programs promoting abstinence.

The independent Institute of Medicine has said that the abstinence requirement is hindering prevention efforts, and Democrats in the U.S. Congress, who are debating reauthorization of the five-year initiative, want it dropped.

Bush's questioner on Wednesday told the president that the requirement was not realistic, because "multiple sexual relationships or partner relationships is the reality" in African societies, "though it's not spoken of in public."

Bush, as he has in the past, defended the requirement. But then he went a step further: "I monitor the results. And if it looks like it's not working, then we'll change. But thus far I can report, at least to our citizens, that the program has been unbelievably effective. And we're going to stay at it."

The prevalence of HIV is relatively low in Ghana when compared with the rest of sub-Saharan Africa; Kufuor said the infection rate dropped from 2.6 percent in 2006 to 2.2 percent last year. And while Ghana receives AIDS assistance from an international fund to combat the disease, it is not one of the so-called Pepfar focus countries, which receive extensive financing from the President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, known by the acronym Pepfar.

Ghana was the fourth stop on Bush's five-country tour of Africa, which the administration has used to promote American foreign and humanitarian assistance, his Bush's programs to combat AIDS and malaria.

Bush has been handing out assistance packages all week, and Wednesday was no exception. With Kufuor by his side, Bush announced he would make available $350 million over five years to provide treatment for tropical diseases such as river blindness, hookworm and schistosomiasis, also known as snail fever. Many health experts say such tropical diseases have been neglected amid the focus on AIDS and malaria.

In case Americans were losing interest in Bush's Africa visit, the administration added some star power Wednesday. Jordin Sparks, the winner last year of the "American Idol" contest, who sang the national anthem when Bush and his wife, Laura, visited the U.S. Embassy here.

"American Idol" has been active in raising money for humanitarian causes in Africa, and Sparks was in Ghana promoting the charity Malaria No More, which was created at a White House meeting on malaria in December 2006.