President Bush departed Monday to Africa for a tour of five countries that have made democratic and economic progress that their continental neighbors still lack.
The visit, the first by a Republican U.S. president to Africa, comes at a time Mr. Bush is considering sending American peacekeeping forces to Liberia, pressing for restoration of democracy in Zimbabwe, and promising a new $15 billion package to fight AIDS, most of it earmarked for African countries.
However, the president will not be visiting war torn Liberia or Congo, or strife-ridden Zimbabwe. Instead, he'll tour Senegal, South Africa, Botswana and Nigeria, which are led by elected governments, and Uganda, which has made progress in reducing the AIDS infection rate.
National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice defends the itinerary. She stresses the president will be highlighting his own positive agenda for the continent.
Rice says that includes providing humanitarian relief to combat famine and the spread of AIDS.
"This President takes seriously Africa, African leaders, and the potential of this continent to be a fully contributing continent to world growth and prosperity," she said. "And I hope that that's the agenda that really does come through."
For their part, Africans see Mr. Bush's visit as a key part of a strategy to combat rising anti-American sentiment on the continent and the image of Washington as an international bully, analysts say.
"Where else can they demonstrate Bush is more than just a cowboy than to come to the continent most in need of assistance," said Jakkie Cilliers of the Institute for Security Studies in Pretoria.
The new focus on Africa is a welcome change on a continent America shied away from after its efforts to feed victims of famine in Somalia turned to fighting warlords over nation-building and Rwanda was devastated by a genocide in the 1990s.
The fallout from the Iraq war and the need to keep African states in the anti-terror campaign has changed U.S. attitudes toward the continent, said John Stremlau, head of the University of the Witwatersrand's department of international relations.
Mr. Bush's decision to attack Iraq was roundly criticized in Africa, partly because of the large Muslim populations in some countries, but also because America was seen as thumbing its nose at the United Nations.
In the poor, weak countries of Africa, the United Nations is seen as the only stage for the continent to exert international influence.
To cut down on growing anti-American sentiment around the world, Washington decided it had to restart the Mideast peace process and demonstrate it was sensitive to development issues, including HIV-AIDS, poverty and trade, Cilliers said.
"The U.S. decided, 'Our credibility depends on demonstrating the U.S. is not the international bully,'" he said.
Africa benefits from the renewed American interest, which is also fueling a competition for influence on the continent with the French and British.
Analysts say Mr. Bush's African strategy revolves around building stability in key states. But he is also going on the offensive against what it views as rogue African leaders, such as Presidents Charles Taylor in Liberia and Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe.
Mr. Bush is demanding Taylor step down to bring peace to the country founded by freed American slaves in 1847. He is also insisting that Mugabe restore democracy in Zimbabwe, where 200 people have reportedly been killed in state-orchestrated political violence and many more have been beaten, tortured, raped and jailed for their beliefs.
Just before his visit, Mr. Bush upset some here by cutting military aid to countries, including South Africa, that do not support the U.S. position on the proposed international criminal court. His trip also comes at the same time, and takes some of the attention away, from the largest annual meeting of African leaders at the African Union summit in Mozambique.
Asked if the president intended to apologize for slavery, Rice told reporters last week that, "The President is going to talk about and acknowledge what slavery has meant to Africa and has meant to America. But there is plenty of blame to go around about slavery."
Mr. Bush will have a tough time convincing African leaders to exert more pressure on Mugabe to restore democracy in Zimbabwe.
"I don't think President Bush will get much joy from African leaders. There will be the usual niceties but it will be so much hot air," said John Makumbe, a political scientist at Zimbabwe University in Harare.
Washington and Pretoria have said Zimbabwe will be high on the agenda when Mr. Bush and South African President Thabo Mbeki meet. Both countries favor resumption of political talks in Zimbabwe leading to a government of national unity. They differ on how to deal with Mugabe.
Mr. Bush has imposed limited sanctions on Zimbabwe's leaders, refuses to acknowledge the legitimacy of Mugabe's re-election, and is seeking more concerted international pressure, especially from African nations.
Mbeki says he will not pressure Mugabe and instead favors what he calls "quiet diplomacy."
Mbeki's quiet diplomacy is often criticized in South Africa for being simply silent. Unlike the Bush administration, he does not publicly condemn the policies of Mugabe and instead has sought at times to defend him.