By Ron Walters
-Guest Columnist-

( – It has been difficult for me not to appear cynical about the trip to Africa by George Bush, but I have had the greatest problem with the seeming contradiction of a president who could take his compassion brigade to Africa after having killed 35,000 people in Iraq for no reason. And, I have the greatest difficulty with a president who lied to get the American people behind him by basing his case for war on forged documents that alleged Iraq was trying to procure uranium from Niger. In pursuing this war, he is running up a tab that is now $4 billion per month, while challenging at home the needs for jobs, education, housing and the like.

So, I have had a problem legitimizing the compassionate look that Bush fostered when he stepped out into the “door of no return” at Goree Island, the slavery station off the coast of Dakar, Senegal.

Nevertheless, I was still surprised at his speech at Goree Island on two accounts. The first was that he referred to slavery as a “crime.” Remember that he refused to send serious representation to the UN Conference Against Racism last year?


Many people thought that he did so because he didn’t want to legitimize the position of the American delegation that slavery was a “crime against humanity.” Yet, he almost said it. Then, he referenced an understanding that the condition of African Americans today was rooted in the dynamics of slavery. This was also a strange admission, since conservatives in his party have labored to refute this fact and have established an ideology of “personal responsibility” as the main reason that Blacks continue to exist in a disadvantaged state.

I had to ask myself why Bush would go to Africa in his first term when it took Bill Clinton until the end of his second term to make the voyage? I think that Africa presented Bush with a giant photo op that he could use in the upcoming election. In fact, I can hear his strategist Karl Rove now saying, “All we need to go with the $15 billion pledge of funds for HIV/AIDS to Africa is a series of pictures of you in Africa and it will play well with the moderate wing of the party.”

That is precisely what Bush did in the 2000 convention–line up Blacks and Hispanics at his nominating convention, not to actually “reach out” to them, as has been suggested, but to appeal to those in the party who were both tired and afraid of the power of the radical right wing.

Then, Bush talked a lot about carrying the message of fighting terrorism to Africa as part of his pretext for going there. And he promised $100 million to East Africa to show that he was serious about the bombings that had occurred, in which many more Africans were killed than American embassy officials. So Bush is preparing his platform, using Africa to remind Americans that he is carrying the fight on terrorism to a new frontier–without a bloody fight.

Bush met with African Americans and Africans in Abuja, Nigeria, at the end of his trip at the “Summit” named for the deceased American Rev. Leon H. Sullivan. Despite the lack of much that had transpired on his trip, he ran through a litany of moderate gestures that drew 30 rounds of applause in an 18-minute speech. This was taking politeness to a serious extreme, since it allowed him to build yet another giant photo op, but this time, with African Americans in the mix laughing and clapping their heads off–about very little.

At the same time, the Republicans in the House were cutting his $15 billion HIV/AIDS promise to Africa, just as they did his “no child left behind” farce. And so, despite what may have been a great program, it stands in jeopardy of becoming another caricature of compassionate policies. Having trouble in America selling compassion, Bush fled to Africa dogged by Iraq and the economy hitting a record deficit of $450 billion. What was so great to cheer about in Abuja?

(Ron Walters is a Distinguished Leadership Scholar, director of the African American Leadership Institute and professor of government and politics at the University of Maryland-College Park.)