Partners for peace?

June 07, 2005

PRESIDENT BUSH and British Prime Minister Tony Blair -- the bold, if misguided, team who led the coalition to conquer and remake Iraq -- have a chance to reprise their pairing for a more popular mission.

The two are scheduled to meet in Washington today to discuss Mr. Blair's proposal for boosting financial aid to Africa to help nations on that troubled continent break the cycle of war, disease and poverty that impedes their economic development.

It's vital for Africa and perhaps for America as well that Mr. Bush extend to his coalition comrade enthusiastic support for the initiative to address what Mr. Blair calls "the fundamental moral challenge of our time."

U.S. officials are alarmed because Mr. Blair seems more focused on how to raise the money than on how it will be spent. The Bush administration has doubts about Africa's ability to absorb the $25 billion in additional aid Mr. Blair hopes to be able to promise at the Group of Eight summit of industrialized nations he's hosting in Scotland next month.

What's more, Mr. Bush is not eager to abandon the goals of the Millennium Challenge Account plan of 2002, which was designed to channel aid first to countries that passed a threshold of readiness by controlling corruption, establishing a free press and the rule of law, investing in health and education and encouraging trade and private investment.

But that program has so much red tape that only two countries have qualified so far for aid and none of the $2.5 billion approved by Congress has yet been dispersed.

So Mr. Bush and Mr. Blair ought to devise a means to combine their objectives in a program that offers quicker, more generous help with some mechanism to ensure that the aid is strategically applied and the money achieves what is intended.

At this juncture, Mr. Bush's firm commitment to the cause may be more important than the precise details, in part because such an effort really can't succeed without the backing of the United States, which is the world's largest aid donor -- though the amount is stingy compared with national income.

But also because this Africa aid plan offers the chance for the president and Mr. Blair to take the focus off their ill-conceived Iraq war and undertake instead a humanitarian campaign likely to earn them far more credit in the world community.

Perhaps the most selfish reason for Mr. Bush to sign on to some version of the Blair plan is national security. To whatever extent turmoil and despair in Africa can be replaced with stable democracies, the breeding grounds and sanctuaries for terrorism there will be eliminated.

The Bush-Blair team has spent hundreds of billions of dollars on the pretext of defeating potential enemies in Iraq. A few billion more carefully spent to upgrade the quality of life in Africa seems like a bargain.

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