- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 21, 2008

MONROVIA, Liberia (AP) On a humid rehearsal studio, Liberia’s pop queen practiced her newest single, a song called “Thank You,” to be released for President Bush’s visit here today.

Her head tilted back, Juli Endee pulled the microphone close and belted out, “Thank you, George Bush.”

“Thank you for democracy,” she crooned over the electric guitar, shaking her hips wrapped in yellow cloth. “Thank you for the rule of law,” she sang. “Thank you for debt relief.”

Mr. Bush arrives in Liberia today on the last stop of the five-nation Africa tour that brought him to one of the few parts of the globe where people still have a favorable view of America. A Pew poll of 47 nations found that America’s popularity is exceptionally high in Africa, where some hold the United States in higher regard than Americans do themselves.

America’s popularity verges on exuberance in this nation founded in 1847 by freed U.S. slaves. “If you were to take a survey, you would find that there is not one Liberian that doesn’t love George Bush,” said Miss Endee, whose songs calling for peace were among the most heavily played during Liberia’s civil war.

The Bush administration has made Africa the centerpiece of its aid strategy. Twelve of the 15 countries receiving funding from the five-year, $15 billion President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief are in Africa. Nine African countries are among the 16 drawing grants from Mr. Bush’s Millennium Challenge Corp., which provides support to nations that have reached benchmarks from stemming corruption to investing in immunizations.

Since Mr. Bush took office, U.S. development aid to Africa has tripled, funding for HIV programs has vaulted from less than $1 billion to more than $6 billion per year and garment exports from Africa to the United States, fueled by special trade deals, increased sevenfold, according to U.S. statistics.

“His Africa policy has taken us by surprise. None of us expected this,” said Tom Kamara, editor in chief of the New Democrat, a leading Liberian daily.

Mr. Bush’s focus on the continent, analysts said, stems from the realization that it’s no longer just a case of Africa needing America, but of America needing Africa.

Today, a fifth of U.S. oil imports come from a single African nation: Nigeria. By the end of the decade, one in five new barrels of oil entering the global market are projected to come from Africa, according to the Council on Foreign Relations.

The continent’s vast, ungoverned spaces have been recognized as new frontiers in the war on terror. Al Qaeda has claimed responsibility for attacks in northern Africa and a radical Islamic group with suspected links to the terror organization has waged a bloody insurgency in Somalia.

More than 1,200 U.S. troops are stationed in Djibouti, which hosts the base for a counterterrorism task force in the Horn of Africa. Last year, the Defense Department announced the creation of a unified U.S. military command for the continent.

“Of course there is a strong element of self-interest in all this,” said Peter Pham, director of the Nelson Institute for International and Public Affairs at James Madison University in Virginia.

The U.S. approach to aid is no longer just about charity, but about helping emerging democracies evolve and secure their borders to prevent them from becoming breeding grounds for terror, Mr. Pham said.

Mr. Bush’s Africa itinerary, his second trip to the continent since 2003, offers examples of countries whose progress toward democracy and economic stability have been rewarded by U.S. aid.

Benin, where Mr. Bush’s trip began Saturday, received a $307 million grant from the Millennium Challenge Corp. two years ago for its commitment to democracy. The commitment was especially apparent that year when a shortage of government funds for election machinery nearly caused the elections to be canceled. They were saved by voters, who raised cash, lent computers and used their motorcycle headlights to illuminate ballot-counting centers.

In 2006, one of the most stable democracies in West Africa received $547 million — “the largest grant ever to Ghana,” said Kwabena Anaman, director of research at Ghana’s Institute of Economic Affairs. “Even though President Clinton was a friend of Africa, I think President Bush has demonstrated evidence of caring in practical terms.”

Rwanda, which is recovering from a 1994 genocide, has just qualified to receive funding under the Millennium Challenge program.

The administration’s new approach to dispensing aid has its critics, including some in Africa.

Although the scale of funding under the Millennium Challenge is unprecedented, movement has been slow. Only a fraction of the intended funds have reached target countries six years after the program’s start.

“They built a great embassy here in Kigali, but if you go out to the countryside you don’t see any signs of the American presence,” said Venuste Karambizi, a dean at Kigali Independent University in Rwanda’s capital.

Others say the set of indicators used to determine good governance is far from foolproof. For example, the prime minister of Tanzania, a major U.S. aid recipient in Africa, resigned in a corruption scandal days before Mr. Bush’s visit.

Nathaniel Heller, a former State Department official who now directs Global Integrity, a think tank that focuses on corruption, said international donors mistake Tanzania’s “economic progress for governance progress.”

These criticisms seemed petty in the streets of Monrovia, the Liberian capital.

Memories of bodies piling up outside the American Embassy in 2003 are still fresh, and so is the sight of U.S. warships on the horizon and Mr. Bush’s call for former President Charles Taylor, accused of orchestrating war crimes, to leave. Liberians are also grateful to Mr. Bush for the cancellation of the country’s debt.

Miss Endee, the pop star, has no time to discuss critiques of Mr. Bush’s foreign policy. In her studio, she was busy finishing her song as well as a welcoming dance. It begins with dancers asking one another, “Have you heard who’s coming to Liberia?”

When one answers, “George Bush is coming to Liberia,” they explode into dance.

c Associated Press writers Francis Kokutse in Accra, Ghana; Virgile Ahissou in Cotonou, Benin; and Thomas Rippe in Kigali, Rwanda, contributed to this article.

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