- The Washington Times - Friday, September 8, 2000

In the last days of August, the president made his second trip to Africa in two years. The first trip in 1998 reaped no results, and this one will do no better. If not a misuse of American national interest, this trip will certainly not serve it well now or in the future.

The first trip was pronounced as the "beginning" of a new African renaissance, singling out four leaders in Uganda, Rwanda, Ethiopia, and Eritrea "whose free-market savvy would help revive the world's poorest continent." Since then Rwanda has been mired in a civil war, and Ethiopia and Eritrea have been at war with each other to the exhaustion of both.

President Clinton's most recent trip to Africa at the end of August has been called an American response to the success of Nigerian democracy and an end to the civil war in Burundi. Neither premise stands up to reality.

A democratic election brought Gen. Olusegun Obasanjo to power in Nigeria. But when we take a closer look at what is taking place in Nigeria, we find that its infrastructure, civil service, military, and governmental organization oscillate between lethargy, corruption and kleptocracy. As a reward for Nigeria's return to civilian rule after 15 years of ruinous praetorian military rule, and in recognition of this achievement, President Clinton brought an additional $20 million in aid over and above the annual aid to Nigeria of $170 million. Supposedly this extra money was targeted at expansion of trade and investment, including duty-free access of Nigerian products to the U.S. market. Money also was given to the military for training future United Nations peacekeeping forces.

The new funds will be devoured by the civil and military kleptocracies, which are the mainstay of Nigerian political power. Democratic elections are insufficient as a road to democracy, so long as the judiciary, the civil service, and the government are unreformed.

Instead of giving the money directly to successful businessmen, small entrepreneurs, and hard-working Nigerians, the Clintonian penchant for more government has expressed itself in this largess to Nigeria. This was an act that was seemingly generous, but the consequences will only strengthen the corrupt elements in the Nigerian system. Gen. Obasanjo did not reform the political system or the entrenched civil and military services. As a former military man, Gen. Obasanjo is used to commanding rather than delegating authority, and several delegates in the National Assembly have been impeached for corruption.

A more ambitious and futile effort on the part of President Clinton is to play absentee peacemaker in Africa. Mr. Clinton was invited by former South African President Nelson Mandela to support his efforts to settle the civil war in Burundi at a conference in Arusha, Tanzania, on Aug. 27. Instead, the peace process fell apart in front of his eyes. The chief culprits, Burundi's Tutsi-led government and its hard-line parties, balked at the deal Mr. Mandela offered, and left the conference. Mr. Mandela was hoping the support of Mr. Clinton, who is so much admired by Africans, would help lead to the end of the civil war in Burundi, and eventually to the end of other ethnic conflicts in Africa. His plan failed.

Mr. Clinton made this short pilgrimage to Africa, raising African expectations that the United States would be involved in helping settle their domestic disputes. That could not be accomplished in the short four days allowed. The U.S. president then had to dash up to Cairo to make another attempt at advancing peace in the Israeli-Palestinian dispute in conference with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, before flying to Colombia, after a brief stopover in Washington, to help the Colombian government in its fight against the drug lords.

Why should a U.S. president at the end of his term in office involve the United States in foreign disputes in which the next administration may have little or no interest? Unlike the Arab-Israeli and Irish disputes, and the disputes in Yugoslavia, there is no machinery in place with which the United States can play a significant role to help resolve the African issues.

The president did not consult with Congress about his African pilgrimage for obvious reasons. Congress will not support another Somalia-like operation in the even more vicious Burundi and Rwanda conflicts, and the president has no intention of becoming involved. If there is no intention of a serious U.S. role, the president should not involve himself in the African ethnic domestic disputes.

Hubris after the war in Kosovo led the president to believe a humanitarian foreign policy could be advantageous to the United States. The failure of the administration to distinguish between real American strategic interest and humanitarian action is at the core of an unstructured Clintonian foreign policy. American political capital and the limits of power behoove the president to conserve American power for serious disputes that are directly linked to American national interests.

The United States cannot become the humanitarian policeman of the world. Such a role does not serve the national interest. It limits U.S. power and credibility. An African trip to recognize democratic elections in Nigeria is justifiable, even if the money will not all reach the deserving forces that could bring upon real economic development. However, lending a hand and participating in a failed effort to settle domestic African affairs is another thing.

According to The Washington Post of Aug. 28, National Security Adviser Samuel "Sandy" Burger said the Arusha conference is "an important step in the process to establish peace in Burundi." Indeed.

Amos Perlmutter is a professor of political science and sociology at American University and editor of the Journal of Strategic Studies.

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