WASHINGTON - President Bush's multinational African safari displays one of his more valuable talents: He's a fast learner.
That's a valuable talent to have when you don't know much.
As a candidate, he didn't know much about Africa and didn't much seem to care. During a televised presidential debate in which Africa came up, he accidentally called it a "country," and it was low on his foreign policy priority list.
He repudiated "nation-building" by the United States and said President Bill Clinton "did the right thing" in delaying U.S. intervention to stop the genocidal slaughter in Rwanda. Mr. Clinton had apologized for the delay, which cost an estimated 300,000 lives.
But that was then. Three years later, Mr. Bush has become more deeply engaged in Africa than any other president in American history, even before the question of military intervention in Liberia recently emerged.
Before the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, it was easier for us Americans to delude ourselves into thinking that undeveloped regions of the world don't matter to our daily lives.
But nature abhors a vacuum. When development and civilization stall, al-Qaida sets up a beachhead. Failed states such as Sudan, Somalia and Afghanistan, or certain remote regions of the Philippines or Pakistan, offer chilling examples.
The United States has boosted its intelligence in East Africa and stationed a rapid-reaction force of 1,500 Marines in Djibouti, after the bombing of our embassies in Kenya and Tanzania and the USS Cole in nearby Yemen.
With new heat on al-Qaida in East Africa, West African countries such as oil-rich Nigeria look more attractive to Osama bin Laden. In a taped February message, he singled out Nigeria, where half of the population is Muslim, as ripe for "liberation."
Speaking of the O-word, never let it be said that the Bush administration is not interested in oil. Its post-9/11 foreign policy calls for increasing oil imports from Nigeria to reduce dependency on the Middle Eastern variety.
That makes Liberia problematic, too. The troubled land, settled historically by freed American slaves, has not had electricity or running water for three years. Its near-anarchy resembles that of Somalia, another country where al-Qaida moved in after the central government evaporated. Since wars in Liberia have a nasty habit of spilling devastation and atrocities across the West African region, the United States has a big interest in restoring some measure of stability there.
Then there's AIDS. Mr. Bush stunned the world in January by announcing plans to spend $15 billion over the next five years, including almost $10 billion in new money, to battle AIDS, mostly in Africa. The money would go to poor countries that submitted sound development plans and met high standards of accountable and democratic governance.
If anything, much of the credit for Mr. Bush's new Africa consciousness goes to two other people, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell and the Rev. Franklin Graham.
During his first tour of the State Department after taking office, Mr. Powell sent a dramatic message throughout the diplomatic corps when he took the unprecedented step of making the Africa bureau his first stop.
Mr. Graham, a Bush friend who delivered the invocation at his inauguration, has campaigned for the administration to help the fight against AIDS and against slave-trading and other oppression of non-Muslims in Sudan. Mr. Graham heads Samaritan's Purse Christian charity, a missionary organization that provides emergency relief in underdeveloped countries.
Unfortunately, Mr. Graham, who is Billy Graham's son, also has made some patently offensive comments about Islam and the Prophet Muhammad. In October 2001, he stated that "the God of Islam is not the same God" worshipped by Christians and Jews, and called Islam "a very evil and wicked religion."
Mr. Graham is entitled to his opinion, but Mr. Bush's association with him has not helped the administration's image among the world's more responsible Muslim leaders.
Still, there is hope. As Mr. Bush's safari shows, he learns quickly. His Africa tour hits the right themes. Now let's see how well he follows through.
Clarence Page is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune, a Tribune Publishing newspaper. His column appears Fridays in The Sun. He can be reached via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.