Mideast edition, Sunday, July 15, 2007

STUTTGART, Germany — When Gen. William E. “Kip” Ward was tapped to lead the new U.S. Africa Command, the media noted that he is the Army’s only black four-star general.

But will the color of Ward’s skin mean anything in his new job?

It might, said Dr. (Col.) Victor Folarin, who works for the U.S. European Command’s logistics and security assistance directorate.

America does send “a message to Africa that it is willing to do whatever it takes to get cooperation, to the extent that we pick someone who is African-American, and who has experience in Africa, too, and has origins and ties to Africa,” said Folarin, who was born and raised in Lagos, Nigeria, and still has family living there.

“If General Ward was not qualified he would not have gotten his fourth star and would not have been selected for the job.”

But being black will not ensure smoother sailing for Ward or the United States, said Brett Schaeffer, a fellow at the conservative Washington-based Heritage Foundation who has worked extensively in Africa.

“I think (skin color) would be a much bigger issue in Washington than it is in Africa,” Schaeffer said. “In Africa, he’ll be viewed as the commander in charge of Africa Command. He’ll be viewed as American, not of a particular race.”

The new command, which was announced in February, has scheduled its initial stand-up for Oct. 1. Like the European and Pacific commands, AFRICOM would coordinate the military’s activities in a given area.

Unlike the current commands, AFRICOM is being built with diplomatic and humanitarian aspects to complement efforts such as soldier-to-soldier training. Ward, if his nomination is approved by the Senate, would be the commander, but his deputy would come from the State Department.

Ward, a graduate of historically black Morgan State University in Baltimore, has not spoken publicly about his nomination, which was announced Tuesday. He was scheduled to travel Wednesday from Washington to South Africa, and Stars and Stripes has been unable to reach him for comment.

When asked about the nomination, some black servicemembers in Europe were split on whether Ward’s race would benefit him when dealing with African leaders.

“It’s more of an identifying factor,” said Master Sgt. Kenneth Hardin of the 16th Sustainment Brigade in Bamberg, Germany.

“Not necessarily that [African leaders] wouldn’t identify any more or less with someone of another color, but to actually see someone who looks like them in a key position, representing U.S. and the military — I think it brings credibility to that command having the leader of it being a man of color.

“Knowing that he is the first, I’m really blessed to experience it myself,” said Spc. Brian Traylor of 52nd Signal Company in Stuttgart. “I’m glad to witness it.”

But Traylor said he did not believe Ward’s color would give him any edge when working with Africans.

“We’re American and they’re not,” Traylor said. “Whatever the feeling between those two, I feel it would be the same if the gentleman was white. If I were Nigerian, then it would be like, ‘He’s American, I’m Nigerian.’ That’s how I would feel.”

Ward’s nomination was reminiscent of that of Gen. John P. Abizaid, an Arab-American of Lebanese descent who is fluent in Arabic. Abizaid retired in March after nearly four years leading the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan as commander of U.S. Central Command.

At the time of Abizaid’s nomination in July 2003, a senior Defense official said, “If he had been Polish, he would have been the right choice. That he was a scholar who trained in Jordan and is of Arabic descent just makes it that much better.”

Folarin said Ward’s skin color might help him represent the United States in Africa. But it won’t be able to cover up mistakes.

“There can be an unspoken advantage,” he said. “If you look at the history of Africa, when colonists came over and how they eventually took slaves in Africa, to a certain extent it has caused some distrust (of whites).

“But [Ward] could be darker than charcoal; if he’s carrying the wrong information or message, he will not be accepted.”

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