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The Africa continuum

This post originally appeared in National Journal.

DAR ES SALAAM, Tanzania Presidents Obama and Bush met here to commemorate the 15th anniversary of Osama bin Laden's first coordinated murderous assault on America.

Neither was president when suicide truck bombs blew up in front of the U.S. embassies here and in Nairobi, Kenya. As president, both have coped with what those hideous attacks--11 dead and 85 injured here and 212 dead and 4,000 injured in Nairobi--foreshadowed.

Bush was the first American president to preside over thousands of civilian deaths in a battle that's never had a name and never offered a country to vanquish. On Saturday in Johannesburg, Obama called it the "so-called war on terror."

By whatever the name, the war goes on in myriad ways. Some of them are grindingly familiar. The 12th year of combat with the Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan's eastern badlands. Drones. Guantanamo.

Some are startlingly unfamiliar. Obama presiding over wider surveillance than Bush used, a regimen that logs phone calls and data mines in the U.S. and that bugs phones and hacks into computer lines of our closest European allies.

There are also a dizzying number of counterterrorism wars on this continent, all either launched or intensified on Obama's watch: against Boko Haram in Nigeria; al-Shabaab in Somalia; the Lord's Resistance Army (Joseph Kony) in the Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of Congo and the U.S.-midwifed state of South Sudan; and the Signatories in Blood in Algeria. And this doesn't count the U.S. efforts to reverse a coup in Mali staged by Amadou Haya Sarog, a commander who received extensive military training in the U.S.

America now has 4,000 to 5,000 troops, mostly in Djibouti and drone bases there and Niger. Questions about the U.S. "militarization" of Africa were raised before and throughout Obama's three-nation tour.

They rippled through the comments of retired Anglican Bishop Desmond Tutu in Cape Town on Sunday. Looking squarely at Obama, Tutu said, "Your failure, whether you like it or not, is our failure. We pray that you will be known as having brought peace in all of these places where there is strife ...and no more need for Guantanamo Bay Detention Center."

Obama. Lectured by Tutu. About Gitmo. In Africa. Could there be a better, more prickly example, of how deeply Obama and Bush have become entwined?

But it doesn't stop there. Tutu spoke in an AIDS clinic funded in part by the $3.7 billion the U.S. has poured into AIDS-fighting efforts in South Africa alone under the Bush-created President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief. Overall, the U.S. has spent $44 billion in direct and bilateral assistance in Africa and saved millions of people from near-certain death. Obama has continued PEPFAR but shifted some funding to combat malaria and tuberculosis.

Bush announced the AIDS intervention in 2003 in the teeth of his battle with al-Qaeda in Afghanistan and on the cusp of the war in Iraq.

"Today, on the continent of Africa, nearly 30 million people have the AIDS virus, including 3 million children under the age of 15," Bush said then. "There are whole countries in Africa where more than one-third of the adult population carries the infection. More than 4 million require immediate drug treatment. Yet across that continent, only 50,000 AIDS victims--only 50,000--are receiving the medicine they need."

Bush told Congress the message AIDS sufferers received was blunt and bloodless: "'You've got AIDS. We can't help you. Go home and die.'"

In this, America can justifiably tell itself, it did more than was imagined with less than was thought necessary. A continent that in 2012 was one of only two regions to see an increase in Foreign Direct Investment (up 5 percent here while globally such investment declined by 18 percent) is now poised to grow faster in part because America spared its new generation of workers from the ravages of AIDS.

FDI grew across the continent even as powerhouse economies in South Africa (down 24 percent) and Nigeria (down 20 percent) lost ground. Mozambique, Uganda, and Tanzania grew the most and the economic potential here is hard to overlook. Five hundred million people in Africa are in the prime working ages of 15 to 64, and that number is projected to be 1.1 billion by 2040--more than China or India. This workforce skews heavily toward the youth end of the spectrum, and global-connectedness is no less a priority here than anywhere else. Eleven million cell-phone users lived here in 2000; now there are 650 million.

Africa needs stable governments, enforceable contracts, and infrastructure. Twice on the continent Obama has hectored Africa about its postcolonial infatuation with tribalism, corruption, and patronage. He did so first in Ghana in 2009 and repeated the admonition throughout Senegal, South Africa, and here.

"It still takes way too long--too many documents, too much bureaucracy--just to start a business, to build a new facility, to start exporting," Obama said at a forum with American and African CEOs here Monday. "No one should have to pay a bribe to start a business or ship their goods. You shouldn't have to hire somebody's cousin who doesn't come to work just to get your business done. Trade will flow where rules are predictable and investment is protected."

I suppose Obama could have crafted a more Bushian economic message, but I can't quite think of how. America is no longer coming to Africa with the Peace Corps (happy 50th, by the way), shipping crates of grain, and cash aid. Obama wants to pour billions of U.S. dollars (government and private-sector) into infrastructure and use every variety of leveraged loans to create more export businesses. Part of the vision is a $16 billion U.S. venture to wire 80 percent of the continent with electricity within 15 years.

Yes, China and India and Brazil are already playing in Africa, and the U.S. is playing a bit of a Johnny-come-lately tune--at least financially. But Obama vowed that America values would win out over time.

"I want to make sure that as countries come to Africa, that it's benefiting Africans," he said Saturday in Johannesburg. "So if somebody is building a road here in Africa, make sure they're hiring some Africans. (Applause.) If there's going to be manufacturing taking place of raw materials, locate some of those plants here in Africa."

Obama repeated those sentiments over and over across Africa--a barely veiled reference to China's reputation here for extracting minerals, building plants, and creating jobs that do more to exploit than profit African workers.

The forces visited upon Africa and the world 15 years ago--explosive, murderous anti-Western terror--have intensified and in Obama's word "metastisized." They are here, and the confrontation is no less important to America's fortunes than anywhere on the planet. If America joins Africa in defeating terror malignancies, coaxes governments away from corruption, and invests wisely, it may discover a fulcrum against violence and a workforce and trading partner to rival India and China.

It seems far-fetched and impossible.

But so, too, did a global war on terror against al-Qaida the day before bin Laden struck here and Nairobi.

It also seemed that way when Bush pledged to turn back the tide of AIDs in 2003.

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