Many Americans seem to accept the notion that we live in a unipolar world, and that only the United States has the wherewithal to solve complex global problems. But on the continent of Africa, which President Bush is crisscrossing for the first time this week, the U.S. isn't taking the lead. On his trip, President Bush has a chance to decide if the U.S. will play more than a supporting role.

Two major conflagrations currently beset Africa that demand U.S. attention: one in West Africa, that began in Liberia and has spilled over into the Ivory Coast; and one in the vast Democratic Republic of Congo, where some three million people may have died as a result of the five-year civil war. The United States has done little to resolve either conflict, remaining suspicious of U.N. peacekeeping and unwilling to commit its own political and financial resources. 

In both cases, the French have taken the lead, sending peacekeepers to Congo's north-eastern Ituri province and to Cote d'Ivoire - a response that may not be sufficient, but that at least recognizes the severity of these crises. The Bush administration is now considering whether it will break this pattern and send U.S. troops to Liberia, or whether it will just support the ECOWAS effort. 

Both conflicts genuinely need U.S. involvement. Liberia was settled by ex-American slaves, and the U.S. refusal to intervene in Liberia in 1990 contributed to the country's descent into bloody conflict. The Liberian president, Charles Taylor, was recently indicted by an international tribunal for his role in fomenting civil war in neighboring Sierra Leone. According to Human Rights Watch research, Liberian fighters have been guns for hire in the Ivory Coast, contributing to the slide into conflict of what was once the region's most prosperous country. 

During his trip, African leaders will want to know what Washington is going to do about the crisis in West Africa. Two years ago, British troops pacified Sierra Leone after ten years of vicious civil war. What will the Bush team do about Liberia? 

US responsibilities 

Meanwhile, the U.S. government also has unique responsibilities for the crisis in the Congo. Two countries most involved in the conflict, Rwanda and Uganda, are two of Washington's closest allies on the continent. Both countries invaded Congo and occupied parts of the east. In the region of Ituri, which was occupied by Uganda and where Rwanda has also been involved, ethnic tensions have led to hundreds, if not thousands, of deaths in recent weeks. Rwanda and Uganda have now withdrawn their troops. But a new Human Rights Watch report, released this week, documents how each country assisted the ethnic militias that are behind the killing today. 

This is an area where the United States should have a high profile, but it is the French-led multinational force that is making news. The U.S. has long provided substantial support to Uganda, due partly to its success in economic development and in combating HIV/AIDS. Rwanda, too, has received significant assistance from the U.S., especially since the 1994 genocide. 

Yet U.S. officials are reluctant to deliver public messages about human rights abuses to Uganda and Rwanda. President Bush should go beyond private admonishments and publicly call on the Ugandan, Rwandan and Congo governments not to provide any military or financial assistance to the armed groups in Ituri responsible for massive human rights violations. He should make it clear that the U.S. will use its role as a world leader to seek to end war crimes and crimes against humanity in Ituri. 

The Bush administration may not signal new leadership in these two horrific conflicts. But it will trumpet its leadership on the issue of HIV/AIDS, and indeed the administration deserves credit for making that a key priority for U.S. policy in Africa. The question now is how funds for prevention will be spent. 

Pressure from conservative religious groups threatens to distort the important U.S. commitments on AIDS by emphasizing "abstinence-only" programs that the Bush team has been heavily promoting in places like Texas. Such programs divert attention from the broader prevention messages that are proven to save lives, including promoting condom use. Abstinence-only programs undermine AIDS prevention efforts in the U.S. - and they're out of touch with the realities of the AIDS epidemic in Africa. 

Bush's AIDS initiative shows that he wants to be a leader on issues that matter to Africa, and his recent statements on Africa indicate a willingness to use greater U.S. influence in African crises. But while he is traveling in Africa this week, the U.S. president will find millions of people looking for something more than speeches.