Mideast edition, Tuesday, July 10, 2007

GARMISCH, Germany — Improving the United States’ image in Africa was a prime topic as 80 people gathered Monday to discuss plans for the new U.S. Africa Command.

The command is scheduled to launch, at least partially, in October, when it would begin coordinating its military efforts on the continent.

“We need to get that right on the first day,” said Rear Adm. Robert Moeller, director of the AFRICOM Transition Team.

To underline the image issue, press clippings from throughout Africa were projected onto two big screens in a room for all those at the two-day conference to read.

“AFRICOM does not bode well for the continent. U.S. military installations on African territory would mortgage away sovereignty. Botswana should stay clear,” read one editorial.

“AFRICOM is exactly the opposite of what we need,” read another editorial, this one from Kenya.

Since the command promises to be a tough sell in many parts of the continent, image reconstruction promised to be a main issue at the two-day conference and beyond.

“The world is watching,” warned one attendee.

The command believes it is about to do good things: train soldiers to be effective and law-respecting, organize medical missions to help people be healthier, and dovetail efforts with other do-gooders to create win-win situations.

The participants also discussed food crops, fisheries, and working with aid organizations. They talked about treating China as a collaborator on the continent instead of as a competitor.

But they often returned to the message that the United States would be sending.

They asked how to avoid coming off as the 800-pound gorilla to the people of Africa and the world.

“We’re doing something right, but we don’t know what it is,” said C.D. Smith, from the Defense Department’s African Center for Strategic Studies. “We have not been able to capture that, and we need to be able to do that.”

“How will Africans themselves look at this?” asked another.

It was noted that of the 80 attendees, only one was born and raised in Africa. So there was a tone to avoid force-feeding U.S. goals and viewpoints to Africa.

“Do we see what the Africans see?” Smith said. “In a lot of cases, we misinterpret, we don’t understand, we don’t get to the heart of the issue.”

“We have to improve the quality of our messages,” said Bob Leavitt of the U.S. Agency for International Development, with whom AFRICOM plans to work. “That substance has to get to the field level.”

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