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Liberia threatens to trump Bush's visit to Africa

Liberia isn't on the itinerary of President Bush's trip to Africa this week. But with U.S. military advisers on their way to assess the fragile cease-fire in the West African nation, it's likely Liberia will shadow, if not dominate, Bush's trip.

Bush departs Monday night for a five-day, five-nation tour of the continent that was intended to highlight his wide-ranging peace and prosperity agenda for Africa. With the fate of Liberian President Charles Taylor uncertain and international pressure on the United States to send troops mounting, the White House fears Bush's sunny message to Africa could be drowned out.

Bush is awaiting recommendations from the military advisers and Pentagon planners before deciding whether to commit U.S. peacekeeping troops to Liberia. He might make that decision while in Africa, White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said.

National security adviser Condoleezza Rice said it would be regrettable if the crisis overshadowed Bush's agenda.

"I sincerely hope that people will focus on this tremendous, positive agenda," Rice said. "The president takes seriously Africa, African leaders and the potential of this continent to be a fully contributing continent to world growth and prosperity. And I hope that's the agenda that really does come through."

Bush, only the third U.S. president to visit Africa in the past 25 years, plans to tout his proposals to significantly increase financial assistance to African nations to combat AIDS, terrorism and poverty. He is set to lecture extensively on the benefits of democracy, capitalism and globalization.

Officials said Bush's trip would demonstrate the United States views Africa as an increasingly important trade partner and ally in the war on terrorism.

His African agenda, which includes $15-billion over five years to fight AIDS, $200-million in famine relief and $100-million to fight terrorism, is offered as proof the administration understands the continent's problems and believes they can be solved, officials said.

"I will be carrying a message to the African people that, first, America cares about the future of Africa," Bush said.

Walter Kansteiner, assistant secretary of state for African affairs, said Bush has been working out an agenda for Africa during his 2{ years in office and tailored it to address not only the most critical needs of African nations but U.S. interests on the continent.

"We have very real humanitarian interests. We have very real political interests," Kansteiner said. "The president has said we will not forget about Africa. We will not forget about its health challenges, its HIV/AIDS challenges. We won't forget about helping to build these democratic institutions."

Several international groups have welcomed Bush's proposals. When Bush proposed AIDS funding in his State of the Union address in January, humanitarian organizations welcomed it, especially since Republican administrations have been criticized for not doing enough to fight AIDS.

But as Bush's proposals have wound their way through Congress, several African advocacy groups have grown critical.

That criticism has developed into skepticism about Bush's trip in some quarters, where the visit is seen as having more to do with presidential politics.

"The president has successfully managed to present himself as more sympathetic to Africa than previous presidents. But, in fact, the Bush administration is on a collision course with Africa. Its policies are simply antithetical to African interests," said Salih Booker, executive director of Africa Action, the oldest U.S. advocacy group focused on the continent.

The question facing Bush, as Chester Crocker, a former assistant secretary of state for African affairs in the Reagan and first Bush administrations, put it is, "Is this for real or is this tourism?"

Bush's AIDS plan would significantly increase money to fight the disease and funnel much of the money to 12 African countries and two Caribbean nations where the administration says the problem is worst.

But humanitarian groups criticized Bush for failing to seek full funding of the measure in 2004. Bush requested $2-billion rather than the $3-billion funding target for next year, and Republicans in Congress might trim it further.

Moreover, aid groups said the administration's ban on the use of cheaper, generic AIDS drugs means fewer AIDS patients will be able to get the medicine. The $100-million Bush is offering to combat terrorism in select countries is more of a symbolic gesture than a meaningful contribution, analysts said.

"It is late and probably insufficient," said Susan Rice, assistant secretary of state for African affairs in the Clinton administration who is now at the Brookings Institution.

Advocates for Africa dispute Bush's position that the continent could solve its battle with famine and broaden its trade potential by planting genetically modified crops developed by U.S. companies to be hardy and pest-resistant.

Some African nations have refused American relief offers because the United States insists those countries accept genetically modified crops, activists said.

"That's just corporate welfare for the ADMs and Cargills of the world," said Njoki Njoroge Njehu, director of the U.S. Network for Global Economic Justice, referring to U.S. agribusiness companies.

Bush goes to Africa

The president's schedule on his first visit to Africa:

Tuesday

Dakar, Senegal: Meets with President Abdoulaye Wade; visits former slave shipment port

Wednesday

Pretoria, South Africa: Press conference with President Thabo Mbeki

Thursday

Gaborone, Botswana: Meets with President Festus Mogae; tours Mokolodi Nature Reserve

Friday

Entebbe, Uganda: Meets with President Yoweri Museveni; visits Taso HIV/AIDS clinic

Saturday

Abuja, Nigeria: Meets with President Olusegun Obasanjo; attends Sullivan Leadership summit

Source: White House

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