Our Strategic Interest in Africa

Earlier this year presidential candidate George W. Bush told Sam Donaldson on ABC's This Week Sunday morning show that Africa is not in the strategic interest of the United States. Europe is, so is Asia, as are our neighbors Canada and Mexico. But Africa isn't. When pressed what he, as president, would do in the face of

another genocidal massacre such as happened in Rwanda, Bush said he would let people in the region handle it. That's what happened last time.

Now we see Bill Clinton being reticent for the United States to become very involved in resolving the current bloodbath in Sierra Leone, despite having once apologized for allowing genocide in Rwanda. Apparently, Africa is still not in our strategic interest.

In what Eugene and Jackie Rivers call a "sexual holocaust" in this issue's cover story, an unprecedented epidemic of AIDS now threatens life as we know it in sub-Saharan Africa. Eugene has done much to alert the U.S. public to this crisis in the last several months, and our country is finally starting to pay attention.

The Clinton administration recently designated AIDS as a threat to U.S. national security, pledging new initiatives in funding and education to combat the disease. White House officials said that the AIDS epidemic has become such a global catastrophe that it threatens to destabilize foreign governments, exacerbate ethnic and political rivalries, and upset developing economies.

An interagency working group has been established in the White House to develop a package of new Africa-related programs to be submitted to the president. Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott recently commented on a television news show, "I guess this is just the president trying to make an appeal to, you know, certain groups. I don't view that as a national security threat, not to our national security interests."

For Christians, the real issue is not whether AIDS poses a threat to the "national security interests" of the United States. The real issue is that millions of God's children are dying, and the world is largely just passing by on the other side of the road. Africa has rarely been seen as a matter of genuine U.S. national interest - compare our reaction to events in Kosova to our lack of response to the genocide in Rwanda or Sierra Leone. And while the Clinton initiatives are a step in the right direction toward recognizing the seriousness of AIDS, they are a drop in the bucket toward what is really needed.

THE JOINT UNITED NATIONS Programme on HIV/AIDS has estimated that it would take nearly $2 billion for adequate prevention programs in Africa and an equal sum for adequate treatment. Yet, according to The Washington Post, the White House FY2001 budget request for combating AIDS overseas is $254 million. Contrast this with the administration's efforts in Congress to secure $1.6 billion in military aid to the government of Colombia alone.

So who will speak for Africa? Who will define "strategic interest" in moral language, and not only in economic and geopolitical terms? Who will connect the two? This may be the time for the U.S. churches, both black and white, to step up and play a crucial role. Any issue needs a driving moral constituency if progress is to be made; on the crisis of AIDS in Africa, the churches are well situated to provide that much-needed advocacy.

It is always the church's calling to challenge narrow definitions of national security and act on the belief that all children are God's children, that all children are our children. In our cover story, Eugene and Jackie Rivers offer concrete suggestions for the church: education, advocacy, and humanitarian assistance. All three are important, but given the scope of the disaster, advocacy may be the most important.

Africa must become far more central to U.S. foreign policy, rather than an afterthought on the agenda of both political parties. It may be that only the churches can put Africa on the political agenda. And that may be our strategic interest.

JIM WALLIS is editor-in-chief of Sojourners.

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