Link Geldof and Bush: Diary From the Road Thursday, Feb. 28, 2008 By BOB GELDOF George W. Bush and Bob Geldof aboard Air Force One en route to Ghana, Africa, Feb. 19, 2008 I gave the president my book. He raised an eyebrow. "Who wrote this for ya, Geldof?" he said without looking up from the cover. Very dry. "Who will you get to read it for you, Mr. President?" I replied. No response. The Most Powerful Man in the World studied the front cover. Geldof in Africa — " 'The international best seller.' You write that bit yourself?" "That's right. It's called marketing. Something you obviously have no clue about or else I wouldn't have to be here telling people your Africa story." It is some story. And I have always wondered why it was never told properly to the American people, who were paying for it. It was, for example, Bush who initiated the President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) with cross-party support led by Senators John Kerry and Bill Frist. In 2003, only 50,000 Africans were on HIV antiretroviral drugs — and they had to pay for their own medicine. Today, 1.3 million are receiving medicines free of charge. The U.S. also contributes one-third of the money for the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria — which treats another 1.5 million. It contributes 50% of all food aid (though some critics find the mechanism of contribution controversial). On a seven-day trip through Africa, Bush announced a fantastic new $350 million fund for other neglected tropical diseases that can be easily eradicated; a program to distribute 5.2 million mosquito nets to Tanzanian kids; and contracts worth around $1.2 billion in Tanzania and Ghana from the Millennium Challenge Account, another initiative of the Bush Administration. So why doesn't America know about this? "I tried to tell them. But the press weren't much interested," says Bush. It's half true. There are always a couple of lines in the State of the Union, but not enough so that anyone noticed, and the press really isn't interested. For them, like America itself, Africa is a continent of which little is known save the odd horror. We sat in the large, wood-paneled conference room of Air Force One as she cruised the skies of the immense African continent below us. Gathered around the great oval table, I wondered how changed was the man who said in 2000 that Africa "doesn't fit into the national strategic interests, as far as I can see them." "Hold on a minute. I said that in response to a military question. Condi! Canya get in here," the President shouts out the open door, leaning back in his chair. The Secretary of State, looking glamorous and fresh despite having been diverted to Kenya to articulate the U.S.'s concern over matters there before jetting back to Rwanda to join her boss, sits down. "Hi, Bob." "Hi, Condi." It's like being inside a living TV screen. Bush asks whether she remembers the context of the 2000 question. She confirms it was regarding the U.S.'s military strategies inside Africa, but then 2000 was so long ago. Another universe. I ask him if it is the same today. "Yes, sir," he says. "Well, if America has no military interest in Africa, then what is Africom for?" I ask. People in Africa are worried about this new, seemingly military command. I thought it was an inappropriate and knee-jerk U.S. militaristic response to clumsy Chinese mercantilism that could only end in tears for everyone concerned. (And so did many Africans, if the local press was anything to go by.) "That's ridiculous," says Bush. "We're still working on it. We're trying to build a humanitarian mission that would train up soldiers for peace and security so that African nations are more capable of dealing with Africa's conflicts. You agree with that dontcha?" Indeed I do. The British intervention in Sierra Leone stopped and prevented a catastrophe, as did U.S. action in Liberia. Later, in public, Bush says, "I want to dispel the notion that all of a sudden America is bringing all kinds of military to Africa. It's simply not true ... That's baloney, or as we say in Texas — that's bull!" Trouble is, it sounds to me a lot like what the U.S. did in the early Vietnam years with the advisers who became something else. Mission creep, I think it's called. "No, that won't happen," Bush insists. "We're still working on what exactly it'll be, but it will be a humanitarian mission, training in peace and security, conflict resolution ... It's a new concept and we want to get it right." He muses for a while on the U.S. and China, and their policies on Africa — Africans are increasingly resentful that the Chinese bring their own labor force and supplies with them. Then, in what I took to be a reference to the supposed Chinese influence over the cynical Khartoum regime, Bush adds, "One thing I will say: Human suffering should preempt commercial interest." It's a wonderful sentence, and it comes in the wake of a visit to Rwanda's Genocide Memorial Center. The museum is built on the site of a still-being-filled open grave. There are 250,000 individuals in that hole, tumbled together in an undifferentiated tangle of humanity. The President and First Lady were visibly shocked by the museum. "Evil does exist," Bush says in reaction to the 1994 massacres. "And in such a brutal form." He is not speechifying; he is horror-struck by the reality of ethnic madness. "Babies had their skulls smashed," he says, his mind violently regurgitating an image he has just witnessed. The sentence peters out, emptied of words to describe the ultimately incomprehensible. Rwanda brings him back again to Darfur. In an interview with African journalists, Bush explained the difficulties there now that the "rebels" had broken up into ever-smaller factions, no longer representing their own clans but their own warlord interests. What should we do in this very 21st century asymmetric situation? Impose a wall of peacekeepers first, stop the massacre and rape, and begin negotiating? "The U.N. is so slow, but we must act," Bush says. Action may very well be his wish, but because of the U.S.'s intervention elsewhere and his own preemptive philosophy, it is now unacceptable for the U.S. to engage unilaterally. By his own deeds, he has rendered U.S. action in Darfur impossible. As for the rest of the world, for all their oft-spoken pieties, they seem to be able to agree on precisely nothing. Meanwhile, the rape and killing continue, Khartoum plays its game of murder and we won't even pay for the helicopters that the U.N. forces need to protect themselves. Pathetic. Earlier, in his private lounge, which is just behind the bedroom with the twin beds with blue blankets, complete with Presidential Seal, we'd talked of personal stuff. I'd been asking about the laundry arrangements. How do they get the presidential shirts, socks, undies, etc., done on this thing? I'm used to rock-'n'-roll tours where there's a washing machine and dryers set up backstage, but this is gigging on a whole other level. At least 20 military transporters haul presidential necessities around the planet. At our hotel in Ghana, the porter carrying my bag said they had thrown out all the other guests because "the President of the World was coming." "Laundry, huh?" the President mused. "Y'know, I've never asked that. I usually just wear the same thing all day, but if I need to change, there's always a room I can go to. Laundry, huh? Is this the interview, Geldof? It's certainly a different technique!" He's showing me around because I've asked if I can get Air Force One stuff to bring home to the kids. "Hey guys, get Geldof the links and pins and stuff. And the M&M's. Didja know I got my own presidential M&M's?" Wow. "Yeah, cool, right? They'll love 'em." They did. They're in a presidential box with his autograph on them. The Queen doesn't have that. Or the Pope. And I muse later from Car 25 in the 33-car motorcade that there are probably only three people in the world who can bring crowds like this out onto the street — the Queen, the Pope and the President of the United States, and only one's a politician. "Jed," the President says to the man doing the ironing between the twin beds. "How do we do the laundry on this thing?" "We use hotels, sir." Ah. Nobody else gets beds. The exhausted secret-service guys, the secretaries of state, the chief of staff, the assistants and advisers and the press pool attempt a fitful sleep in the gray-and-beige reclining seats. Some give up the unequal struggle and order dinner. Not fantastic food, with decentish wine served by nicely uniformed, friendly waiters. Up front we're knocking back Cokes. The First Lady, elegant and composed, is reading with her legs tucked under her on the L-shaped sofa. The President throws himself into a chair in front of me and sprawls comfortably, Texas-style. He asks about growing up in Dublin. "Was it poor then?" Very. "Huh. What'd your dad do? Your mom?" We went through it. "How'd you and Bono meet up? You knew each other back then? What's his real name?" I don't know how, but eventually we arrive at the great unspoken. "See, I believe we're in an ideological struggle with extremism," says the President. "These people prey on the hopeless. Hopelessness breeds terrorism. That's why this trip is a mission undertaken with the deepest sense of humanity, because those other folks will just use vulnerable people for evil. Like in Iraq." I don't want to go there. I have my views and they're at odds with his, and I don't want to spoil the interview or be rude in the face of his hospitality. "Ah, look Mr. President. I don't want to do this really. We'll get distracted and I'm here to do Africa with you." "OK, but we got rid of tyranny." It sounded like the television Bush. It sounded too justificatory, and he doesn't ever have to justify his Africa policy. This is the person who has quadrupled aid to the poorest people on the planet. I was more comfortable with that. But his expression asked for agreement and sympathy, and I couldn't provide either. "Mr. President, please. There are things you've done I could never possibly agree with and there are things I've done in my life that you would disapprove of, too. And that would make your hospitality awkward. The cost has been too much. History will play itself out." "I think history will prove me right," he shoots back. "Who knows," I say. It wasn't awkward. It wasn't uncomfortable. He is convinced, like Tony Blair, that he made the right decision. "I'm comfortable with that decision," he says. But he can't be. The laws of unintended consequences would determine that. At one point I suggest that he will never be given credit for good policies, like those here in Africa, because many people view him "as a walking crime against humanity." He looks very hurt by that. And I'm sorry I said it, because he's a very likable fellow. "C'mon, let's move next door and let Laura alone." "I spoke to Blair about you before I came on the plane." "Tony Blair? What'd he say?" "He said you don't see color. To remember that you employed the first black secretaries of state, that your worldview had changed since you began, and that Condi was a big influence with regard to Africa." "So you were a big influence on me," he says to Condi. "I don't think so ..." "Nah, I've always been like this." "But now you sound like a hippy, for God's sake," I say. He laughs. At a lunch for Peace Corps volunteers in Ghana, the President introduces the First Lady and Condi. Then he introduces me. It turns into a very funny Geldof roast. Finally, he says, "Anyway, he doesn't look it, but he's all right. And I'm not saying that to blow smoke up his rear just because he's doing some piece on me." Thanks for the compliment, Mr. President. He makes the volunteers relaxed and easy with him. They introduce themselves. One woman tells how six months previously, she was bitten by a cobra and rushed to hospital. As she was passing out, she tells the President, "that little voice whispered to me, 'You'll be all right,' and I was." She pauses, and says meaningfully to him: "You know that little voice, I think?" "Not really," Bush says drily. "I've never been bitten by a cobra." As they tell their stories he refers to them as being among the best of America. "I like courage and compassion. We are a courageous and compassionate people." A middle-aged couple say they gave up their careers and home to come to Africa. "It's important to take risks for the things you believe in," says Bush. Then disarmingly, he says to the man, who lives in a village, "What's social life like here?" "What's social life anywhere at 59?" the man asks his President, who is 61. "Tell me about it," says Bush. "Bed at 6:30!" I have always heard that Bush mangles language and I've laughed at the satires of his diction. He shrugs them off, but I think he's sensitive about it. He has some verbal tics, but in public and with me he speaks fluently and in wonderful aphorisms, like: "Stop coming to Africa feeling guilty. Come with love and feeling confident for its future." "When we see hunger we feed them. Not to spread our influence, but because they're hungry." "U.S. solutions should not be imposed on African leaders." "Africa has changed since I've become President. Not because of me, but because of African leaders." Some of these thoughts, were they applied to Iraq, would have profound implications on the man's understanding of how the world functions. ("U.S. solutions should not be imposed on African leaders!") Of course, it would be ridiculous to be the President of the U.S. and not change as a person or evolve in your understanding of the world. I suggest that his commitment to Africa has been revolutionary in its interest curve. "That's not true," he says. "In my second debate with Al Gore, I came out for debt cancellation and AIDS relief. I called AIDS a genocide. I felt and still do that it was unacceptable to stand by and let a generation be eradicated." You forget that Bush has an M.B.A. He thinks like a businessman in terms of the bottom line. Results. Profit and loss. There is an empiricism to a lot of his furthest-reaching policies on Africa. Correctly, he's big on trade. "A 1% increase in trade from Africa," he says, "will mean more money than all the aid put together annually." He's proud that he twice reauthorized the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA), a modestly revolutionary Clinton Administration initiative that enabled previously heavily taxed exports to enter the U.S. tax-free. Even though oil still accounts for the vast amount of African exports to the U.S., the beneficial impact of AGOA on such places as the tiny country of Lesotho, and its growing textile industry, has been startling. AGOA represents precisely the sort of coherent thinking that will change things for Africa. But we talk of how the little that Africa does export to other parts of the world is still greater than the amount that it trades within the continent. I say that's because there are more landlocked countries in Africa than anywhere else in the world. "So they can't get their stuff to market?" he asks quickly. "Exactly," I say. "You have to pay so many tariffs at each border that by the time you get to the coast, you're overpriced." "You gotta dismantle borders, then." He's curious and quick. He is also, I feel, an emotional man. But sometimes he's a sentimentalist, and that's different. He is in love with America. Not the idea of America, but rather an inchoate notion of a space — a glorious metaphysical entity. But it is clear that since its mendacious beginnings, this war has thrown up a series of abuses that disgrace the U.S.'s central proposition. In the need to find morally neutralizing euphemisms to describe torture and abuse, the language itself became tortured and abused. Rendition, waterboarding, Guantánamo, Abu Ghraib — all are codes for what America is not. America has mortally compromised its own essential values of civil liberty while imposing its own idea of freedom on others who may not want it. The Bush regime has been divisive — but not in Africa. I read it has been incompetent — but not in Africa. It has created bitterness — but not here in Africa. Here, his administration has saved millions of lives. "Guys like me always like to cut ribbons," Bush says mockingly at a ceremonial opening. But it's a dangerous modesty. Congress must still agree to fund the massive spending he's laid out for Africa, and most of it will come after he leaves the White House. It is vital that the new President continues with this policy. "Whoever is President," Bush says, "will understand Africa is in our nation's interest. They are wonderful people." On Air Force One, Jendayi Frazer, Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs, Bobby Pittman, the National Security Council adviser for Africa, and I stayed awake as the pitch night engulfed us, only punctuated by the giant orange gas flares on the Gulf of Guinea. We ate our popcorn, drank our Cokes and watched Batman Begins as the airspace was cleared for miles around us. America was flying through the warm African night and I was hitching a ride on her.