WASHINGTON – President Bush said Thursday that he will be carrying a message to the African people that the U.S. cares about the future of the continent.
"It's in our national interests that Africa become a prosperous place; it's in our interest that people will continue to fight terror together; it's in our interest that when we find suffering, we deal with it," Bush said Thursday in interviews with print journalists from Africa.
The president said he will be addressing several issues during his five-day tour to Senegal, South Africa, Uganda, Nigeria and Botswana.
Among other problems, AIDS (search) has plagued the countries he is visiting. Thirty-two million people in Africa live with HIV and AIDS right now. Bush said addressing the crisis is among his priorities.
The president has already signed into law a 5-year, $15 billion AIDS relief package for Africa and the Caribbean. He is also expected to attend a briefing on HIV-AIDS programs and meet with mothers who are benefiting from the mother-to-child transmission prevention programs that the United States funds.
National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice said the president, who has already met 22 leaders from Africa, wants to help African nations come to grips with their AIDS crisis.
"He wants to do something about that because he said that a great country cannot let this pandemic continue and not try to intervene," she said, adding that the president is impressed with the measures Uganda (search) has taken to stem its AIDS cases.
Several corners have asked why the president is taking such an interest in Africa, particularly when he isn't heading to particularly strife-ridden countries, like the Congo and Zimbabwe.
But Rice, herself an African-American, said the president felt it is his duty to address the continent.
"Africa is a part of America's history. Europeans and Africans came to this country together, Africans in chains. Slavery was, of course, America's birth defect and we have been trying to deal with the consequences of it ever since and to bring about reconciliation," Rice said in a Thursday briefing on the president's trip. "It is the motherland, a source of cultural pride for a substantial part of America's population and America cares about that."
Bush said he plans to open his third trip to Africa -- his first as president -- with a speech in Senegal on racial issues in the U.S., Africa and the rest of the world.
Bush said he will address several other issues of importance to African nations, including the Millennium Challenge Account, which rewards nations with economic development aid for establishing democratic institutions and rooting out terrorism.
The administration is also trying to build on several other initiatives, including the African Growth and Opportunity Act, which seeks to improve trade relations; a five-year, $600 million education initiative; and a $100 million package to fight terrorism in east Africa.
The president has not said yet whether the United States will send troops to the West African nation of Liberia (search), which has been plagued by civil war for 10 of the last 14 years.
The White House said Thursday the president wouldn't be pressed by the timetable of his trip into making a decision on whether to send U.S. troops, and if so whether they will arrive in the form of 50 to 75 Marines to protect the U.S. embassy in the capital city of Monrovia or as 2,000 members of a U.N.-led peacekeeping force.
Though Rice did not advance the ball on whether the president would order troops there, she did repeat the president's concern that Liberian president Charles Taylor, charged with war crimes by the United Nations, must leave the country.
"One of the reasons that the president is concerned about the situation in Liberia is that Charles Taylor has been a source of insurrection and insurgency in surrounding countries," Rice said. "Until Charles Taylor is out of politics, there isn't going to be any stabilization of the situation in Liberia ... No matter what you try to do, his leaving is a condition for the parties coming to a stable peace and beginning a political process."
Though Rice said she did not expect conditions in Liberia to detract from the president's trip, earlier in the day, Bush acknowledged that Africans, and others around the world, hold America in lower esteem.
"If there's a constant effort to describe America as a noncaring country, then people are going to have a bad attitude about us," Bush said, referring to how countries accused the United States of acting aggressively toward Iraq. "I think people, when they know the facts, will say, 'Well, this is a great country."'
"We care deeply about the plight of the African citizen," Bush said. "When this nation sees suffering we will not turn away. There is tremendous suffering on the continent of Africa. ... When we see starvation, we don't turn our back, we act."
Bush dismissed a question about whether an American thirst for African oil drove his interest in the continent.
"Conspiracy theories abound," Bush said. "We've been thinking about Africa since I was sworn in."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.