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US Presidential Election: What's in It for Africa?

By John Stremlau, Mail and Guardian (Johannesburg),
18 August 2000

Political pundits across the United States predict a very close presidential election between Democrat Al Gore and Republican George W Bush on November 7.

Equally important and also too close to call are several local campaigns that will determine which party controls the US Congress. All 435 seats of the House of Representatives will be contested and a net loss of just six seats would end the Republican majority. Democrats could also take charge of the 100-member Senate with a net gain of four, although with only a third of the upper chamber up for election Republicans are expected to retain a slim majority.

African leaders may ask so what? Will any conceivable outcome alter current US foreign policy in ways that will affect Africa? Calculations of Africa's stakes in the US elections should begin by acknowledging three political realities.

First, foreign policy really does not matter to most Americans. With the Cold War over and the US enjoying the longest period of uninterrupted economic growth in its history, international issues so far have barely been mentioned by any of the candidates because opinion polls repeatedly reveal that voters are not interested. When Bush outlined his vision for leading America in accepting the Republican nomination on August 10, only 3% of his text dealt with foreign affairs and essentially was a pledge to strengthen the US military.

Vice-President Al Gore is more expert on world affairs and refers to President Thabo Mbeki as a good friend. But his running mate, Senator Joseph Lieberman, is well- known for his severe criticisms of the Clinton administration's handling of Russia, Iraq, Bosnia, Kosovo and East Timor. As Carnegie Endowment political analyst Robert Kagan dryly notes, Lieberman's selection suggests "foreign policy is irrelevant to today's politics".

Second, both presidential candidates are saying almost nothing about Africa. The Council on Foreign Relations in New York has tracked all of their speeches, recorded interviews and campaign debates. Bush has mentioned Africa three times, most recently on February 16. In each case he responded to similar questions by declaring US armed forces should not have been used to quell the 1994 Rwanda genocide because it did not "fit into the national strategic interests".

Gore has touched on African issues seven times since January 1999, conceding on October 27 last year that "we were tardy in Rwanda". But he seems to share Bush's opposition to the use of US forces in such circumstances.

In the only extended remarks either has made on Africa, Gore appeared before the United Nations Security Council on January 10 to appeal for concerted international action to fight HIV/Aids.

Surprisingly, an intensifying competition for support among America's 30 million people of African descent has not sparked debate about African policy.

If the election is close, a high turnout of African-Americans who traditionally vote heavily Democratic is vital to Al Gore. So on July 7 he delivered an address to the convention of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People appealing for their support. Yet barely 100 words were about Africa policy and he dealt only with the imperative to combat Aids.

The third political reality is the extent of bipartisan support for the US's current Africa policy, which will likely continue whoever is elected. This consensus has been obscured by partisanship in the Congress and with the White House on other issues, including Clinton's impeachment. The extraordinary amount of personal attention paid to Africa by Clinton has also created the impression that African interests will be much better served should the Democrats win both branches of government, as they did in 1992. But in three areas of interest to Africa - peace, poverty reduction and public health - the past should be seen as prelude.

In peace operations, Clinton ignited a firestorm of partisan criticism in 1993 over his handling of Somalia, when 18 US professional soldiers died in battle. But he defused this domestically by unfairly blaming the UN and committing to a total US withdrawal. Since then his refusals to be drawn into conflicts in Rwanda, Congo, Sierra Leone or anywhere else in Africa have had broad bipartisan support. Meanwhile, the administration's African crisis response initiative, to train African peacekeepers, has been backed by the Republicans, as has last week's decision to send US forces to train 4 000 Nigerians for peace operations in Sierra Leone. Such efforts are bound to continue next year, whoever wins, but without any direct military engagement.

Regarding poverty alleviation, US development assistance remains the lowest percentage of gross national product of any industrialised nation and neither the next president nor leaders in Congress are likely to have the votes for substantial increases.

Clinton's singular achievement in helping Africa economically was the passage of the African Growth and Opportunity Act, a modest programme for trade enhancement, the centrepiece of which would allow Africa's share of the US textile market to grow from 0,8% to perhaps 2%. Labour interests within his own party opposed the Bill, which succeeded only because of strong Republican backing. America's main economic interests in Africa are in the handful of oil- producing countries that account for lll about 85% of lll US trade and investment with the region.

Democrats and Republicans have been in agreement not to sanction African oil producers, regardless of their human rights abuses.

A bipartisan Bill to sanction Zimbabwe, where the US has no oil interests, for President Robert Mugabe's abuses of power, sailed through the Senate in June and will be politically difficult for any president to oppose.

Finally, the fight against HIV/Aids is one issue of vital importance to Africa, where a growing bipartisan agreement to be more helpful will offer opportunities for African governments to exert influence regardless of who wins in November. Earlier this year Clinton declared HIV/Aids a threat to US national security. A recent report by the US census bureau of a 36% infection rate in Botswana, a country long viewed in Washington as an African success story, is only the latest shock.

Even more alarming are the estimates that South Africa's current rate of 20% could double by 2010. Last month conservative Republicans joined moderates and a majority of Democrats in approving extra funds to meet Clinton's original request of $244-million for Aids for the next fiscal year, an increase of more than $190-million.

Relative to needs, this amount is still small, but HIV/Aids is one of the few international issues that is gaining attention in Washington.

For Bush and Gore the fight against HIV/Aids touches themes of compassion, family values, community action, education, individual responsibility and other values that both are promoting in their campaigns. There are ways to involve the US private sector and civil society on an issue that touches American social and sexual mores that are sensitive and contentious but recognised as increasingly important. No other issue offers African leaders as great an opportunity to extract financial and material commitments from the US. It may also be possible to link this campaign to other needs, such as debt relief and development finance.

Prospects for securing greater US support will also depend on the scale, intensity and effectiveness of HIV/Aids prevention programmes that South Africa and other affected nations first undertake.

John Stremlau is professor of international relations and head of department at the University of the Witwatersrand

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