In January 2002, Assistant Secretary of State for Africa Walter Kansteiner took the podium at a conference organized by the Institute for Advanced Strategic and Political Studies and said something remarkable. "For too long," he declared, "official Washington has been gripped by the perception that the United States has no vital interests in sub-Saharan Africa. Nothing could be further from the truth." The statement was remarkable largely because one of the people in "official Washington" supposedly "gripped" by that fallacy was none other than his boss, George W. Bush, who, in 2000, had said Africa "doesn't fit into the national strategic interests as far as I can see them."
Was Kansteiner forced to publicly retract his words? Not at all. In fact, the person retracting his words has been the president. Over the past several years, Bush and his foreign policy team have done something almost no one expected when they took office - they have made Africa a priority. It would be an uplifting story, the fulfillment of countless bleeding-heart dreams, except for one thing. Africa is a Bush priority for one reason: oil.
For critics who consider President Bush's talk of global democracy a sham, and suspect it conceals a hidden agenda to control the world's supply of oil, Africa is a kind of Rosetta stone. The continent's west coast - from Nigeria in the north to Angola in the south - is America's fastest-growing source of oil and gas. Over the next decade, according to the National Intelligence Council, Africa's share of the U.S. petroleum market will rise from 15 to 25 percent. As Kansteiner has put it, "African oil has become of national strategic interest to us."
For an administration worried about the stability of longtime oil cow Saudi Arabia, West Africa is a godsend. Its oil is high-quality, easy to refine, and largely offshore, which means political unrest is less likely to disrupt production. It's half the distance from the Persian Gulf. And, because most West African oil producers don't belong to OPEC, they can pump out as much crude as they want, potentially lowering prices.
That's the good news. The bad news is that many of the regimes that control this new oil make Saudi Arabia look like Sweden. In the Middle East, the president is supposedly renouncing the decades-long bargain in which America blesses Arab dictatorships in return for their hydrocarbons. But, in West Africa, his administration is building another, equally ugly arrangement to replace it.
Last month, President Jose Eduardo dos Santos of Angola - Africa's second-largest oil producer - met Bush for the second time. For the leader of a midsized African country, two Oval Office visits is unusual. It's even more unusual, given that President Bush has said he will reward only those African countries that "invest in the health and education of their people. ... Corrupt regimes that give nothing to their people deserve nothing from us." That statement probably elicited a chuckle at Human Rights Watch, which estimates that, between 1997 and 2002, 9 percent of Angola's gross domestic product simply disappeared. Dos Santos's government, in other words, stole roughly as much money as it spent on health and education combined. Luckily for the Angolan leader, he has other credentials that matter in Washington: The night before his first Oval Office meeting, he was feted at a dinner sponsored by ExxonMobil and Chevron-Texaco, both of which are planning major West African expansions.
Two weeks after his meeting with dos Santos, Bush received the leader of Africa's third-largest oil producer, Omar Bongo of Gabon. In power 37 years, Bongo is the elder statesman of African tyrants. He reportedly owns more real estate in Paris than any other foreign leader, and the State Department recently said the country's "human rights record remained poor." But that doesn't seem to bother the White House. Gabon's military now receives U.S. training, and soon after his meeting with Bush, Bongo's government received its first International Monetary Fund (IMF) loan since 2002. Asked about the meeting, White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan said he didn't know if the two men discussed oil. But Bongo told the BBC the president had urged him to increase production.
Then there is Teodoro Obiang Nguema, president of tiny, oil-rich Equatorial Guinea. Obiang, who has held power for 24 years, won his last election with 97 percent of the vote, while the country's main opposition leader languished in jail. In 1998, according to the IMF, his government received $130 million in oil revenue, and Obiang simply pocketed $96 million of it. Although three of every four Equatoguineans suffer malnutrition, between 1997 and 2002, Obiang spent just over 1 percent of his budget on health, by far the lowest of the nine African countries the IMF surveyed. According to a 2002 State Department report, there is "little evidence that the country's oil wealth is being devoted to the public good."
Just months before that State Department report, the White House decided to reopen America's embassy in the capital, Malabo. It had closed in 1995, after President Clinton's ambassador criticized Obiang's repression and then found himself the subject of government death threats. But oil executives - including CMS Energy executive William McCormick, who donated $100,000 to the Bush-Cheney inaugural committee - lobbied the Bush administration to reestablish an American presence. In February 2002, Obiang triumphantly visited Washington. According to an article by Ken Silverstein in Salon, six U.S. oil companies produced a booklet for the occasion, praising him as Equatorial Guinea's "first democratically elected president."
Realists might defend the Bush administration's decision to build in Africa the kind of unholy alliances it supposedly rejects in the Middle East. After all, in the Arab world, dictatorship produces Al Qaeda. In Gabon, Angola, and Equatorial Guinea, where the populations are mostly Christian and animist, Islamists can't exploit U.S.-sponsored oppression. But, even if it isn't channeled into fundamentalism, anti-government rage will sooner or later imperil U.S. oil investments in Africa, too. And it will further degrade America's reputation as a country genuinely committed to democracy and human rights. The Bush administration has already damaged that reputation more profoundly than many thought possible. Now it seems set to extend America-hatred to a new frontier.