Into Africa

Posted: Jul 01, 2003 12:00 AM

Oil-rich Saudi Arabia, a backward society that finances virulent Islamic extremism, has failed to make itself a reliable ally of the United States. So, U.S. policy-makers would be wise to start over and try to make a new Saudi Arabia -- on another continent.

Days after Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld said the United States was pulling its troops out of Saudi Arabia, Supreme Allied Commander Gen. James Jones said that the U.S. military will have to become more engaged with Africa, and that some day U.S. carrier battle groups might be spending less time in the Mediterranean and more along the coast of West Africa.

This strategic reorientation should be the background to President Bush's planned six-day trip to Africa next month.

The potential new Saudi Arabia is West Africa's Gulf of Guinea, a resource-rich region that has little of the anti-U.S. baggage of Saudi Arabia, but already sends the United States roughly as much oil. The region is anchored by Nigeria, the world's sixth-largest oil exporter and fifth-ranked provider of crude to the United States.

To exploit the West African opportunity, conservatives must get over their sneering belief that Africa is by definition strategically insignificant, while liberals must give up their condescending belief that Africa is only a proper forum for guilt-ridden racial politics.

West African oil is a natural for the United States: Much of it is offshore, providing something of a buffer from political instability; it is easily delivered, via a quick jaunt across the Atlantic; and it is low in sulfur, providing the high gasoline yield preferred by U.S. refineries.

Once the United States wakes up to this potential, the strategic implications are obvious: military and political engagement toward the goal of stabilizing and liberalizing the region.

Gen. Charles Wald, deputy commander of the U.S. European Command, recently gave voice to this logic. "Eight percent to 14 percent of U.S. oil comes from Nigeria," he told a reporter, adding that the figure might jump to 25 percent. "All of a sudden the west coast of Africa becomes an area of strategic interest," he said, "and you start saying to yourself, 'I'd like to have some forward bases in Africa.'"

Paul Michael Wihbey, a creative thinker who heads the Washington-based Center for Strategic Resources Policy, argues that the United States should declare the area a vital national interest. This would be a prelude to creating a subregional command with its home port in Sao Tome and Principe, a tiny, oil-rich island nation smack in the middle of the Gulf of Guinea.

Such a declaration would heighten the prestige of leaders in the region, would jump-start closer ties to give the United States leverage to push for political and economic reform, and would signal U.S. capital to come on in -- the water in the Gulf of Guinea is fine.

If U.S. dollars tend to follow the flag, that's just as true of its exit as its entrance. Just as the United States was announcing its Saudi pullout, negotiations between ExxonMobil and the Saudi government collapsed over a proposed $25 billion natural-gas deal. The Saudis balked at opening themselves to foreign investment; ExxonMobil worried about the strength of the kingdom's reactionary forces.

It's another sign that the U.S.-Saudi relationship is slowly ending. Wihbey imagines the Saudi-led Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries gradually being supplanted by a new oil bloc centered on the Atlantic (60 percent of U.S. oil now comes from countries bordering the Atlantic), with Russia as an important fellow traveler. West Africa is a natural part of this grouping -- offshore Brazil and offshore West Africa are part of the same geological basin.

Bush has teed up a policy of more active engagement with Africa nicely with his bold African AIDS initiative and his stark call during the weekend for Liberian thug-dictator Charles Taylor to step aside. So far, a hallmark of his administration has been his willingness to scramble the international status quo, especially in the Middle East and Europe. Now, Africa beckons.