Bombings highlight U.S.'s flawed Africa policy

August 16, 1998|By Paul Delaney

WHEN THE bombs exploded in Kenya and Tanzania, I was already agog over new and past reports and studies that reflected pointedly the contradictions of modern America. A recent study by the U.S. Agency for International Development reported the astonishing fact that the United States spends less than one-half of 1 percent of its gross national product on foreign aid, lowest of any other industrial power. That's contrary to what a majority of Americans believe -- most think the figure is at least 10 percent.

The AID report noted, alarmingly, that, "Both the House and Senate are proposing budgets that would effectively gut a broad range of vital international programs." An earlier Brookings Institution study reported that the United States has spent $5.8 trillion on nuclear weapons programs since 1940. I thought back to all the reports on astronomical earnings by corporations and their executives, the extraordinary amount of money in circulation. Why, some companies pay more money to rid themselves of unwanted managers than is in the budgets of many poor nations.

I recalled myriad studies showing the rich of the world expanding their fortunes while the lot of the poor continues to decline. Nowhere is that more true than here in the United States. Much of the wealth is in the hands of a small number of Americans and the gap is striking.

Some of those facts came to mind as I monitored the developments in East Africa during the past week. Last year, I took a cynic's view of President Clinton's 12-day tour of Africa as all style and mainly for commerce -- however, symbolically important. I remained firm in my belief that little would result to significantly shift prevailing Africa policy -- or, more apt, nonpolicy. The continent is very low on our list of foreign priorities.

Historically, for most Americans, Tarzan forms the basis of our education about the huge, misunderstood continent. Of course, for many wealthy Americans, the safari is the point of reference. Far too many of us relate to lions and elephants, not the people. And, there is the Sally Struthers' syndrome: Many Americans respond generously to Ms. Struthers' and others' appeals for humanitarian help, especially after viewing television pictures of starving children in Ethiopia and Sudan.

Humanitarianism aside, it is to be expected that we and our media give exaggerated exposure to our own concerns, during major events and incidents, especially when they occur in such places as Kenya and Tanzania.

Biased media

There was worldwide criticism of U.S. media when the accomplishments of foreign athletes were downplayed in favor of less-startling feats by our own at the Atlanta Olympics. Maybe you've heard the old media story, 10,000 people killed in a typhoon rate an inside short article; two local casualties of a car accident get page one.

We are seeing similar disparities in the aftermath of the explosions in East Africa. Our official reaction and media TTC coverage are examples of our flawed policies and low regard for non-Americans, especially Africans.

There has been overly heavy focus on our two dozen dead vs. more than 200 Kenyans and 10 Tanzanians dead and hundreds wounded. Policy-makers have stressed that the bombers would be pursued relentlessly and punished severely, downplaying the difficulty of both tasks: But the steely-eyed threats look good on television and in print. The media and the White House have created a politics of pathos, with Mr. Clinton (as was Ronald Reagan) perfect at it. In this game, television gets the easy ratings; the president gets political points.

And, almost immediately, the same cast of "experts" and pundits dusted off all the old stereotypes and presented the world with their near-guarantees that Middle Eastern Arabs and Islamic radicals are the culprits, though they had no proof.

Don't forget what those "experts" proclaimed immediately after the bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City.

At this point, the Africans are lost in the forest and will soon be forgotten. U.S. investigators number in the hundreds. If suspects are found, we already have said they will be tried in the United States, even if apprehended in Kenya and Tanzania. Forget Kenyan or Tanzanian justice systems, forget their sovereignty; it is an Uncle Sam show now. Americans would be outraged if another country deigned to take over an investigation into an incident on our shores, though involving citizens of the other nation, even a country with proven investigative skills, such as Israel.

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