"That's baloney," US President George W. Bush told the press in Ghana on Wednesday. "Or, as we say in Texas, that's bull."
Bush's words, spoken during a joint appearance with Ghana's President John Kufuor, were about as direct as it can get. And the reason for the outburst was clear: Throughout the week -- as the US president has traveled to Benin, Tanzania, Rwanda, Ghana and, on Thursday, Liberia -- worries have been spreading across Africa that the Bush administration is planning to build military bases on the continent.
According to Bush, Kufuor even brought it up in their private meeting prior to the press conference. "You're not going to build any bases in Ghana," Bush said Kufuor told him. "I understand," Bush responded. "Nor do we want to."
The concerns, though, haven't come out of nowhere. Last October, a new US military command, called AFRICOM -- short for African Command -- began initial operations. The idea isn't much different than other regional commands run by the US military and is a recognition that stability and prosperity in Africa has a major role to play in global security. Indeed, AFRICOM advertises itself as "a different kind of command." Instead of a heavy focus on weapons systems and soldiers, AFRICOM -- currently based in the southern German city of Stuttgart -- sees itself as a glorified aid agency focusing on, as the president has put it, bringing "peace and security to the people of Africa and to promote the development of health, education, democracy and economic growth."
Despite the soft rhetoric, a number of African countries are concerned that AFRICOM is part of an effort to increase US power on the continent. Libya, Nigeria and South Africa have all expressed concern that Washington is pursuing an expansion of power in part to protect US interests in African oil.
The storm of criticism has led to American backpedalling. AFRICOM "ignited a very negative and strong reaction across the continent," J. Stephen Morrison, co-director of the Africa program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told reporters before Bush left for Africa. The administration, he said, "has walked back from that. They're now in a quiet phase where they're trying to build up their credibility and their consultations." The new military command, which is set to employ 1,400 people, 40 percent of them civilians, will go into full operation in October.
Even if the project is controversial, it does signify a change in thinking in the Bush administration. Whereas in the years immediately following the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Bush placed the emphasis on military operations as he battled global extremism, the White House now seems to have finally recognized that US security also depends on addressing poverty and promoting the rule of law -- even in seemingly remote countries in Africa.
But it may be some time before AFRICOM actually finds a base on the continent it has committed itself to helping. Liberia, so far, is the only country that has said it might be willing to host the command's headquarters. Bush, though, still has a lot of convincing to do.