For five days at least, the man of war will become a man of peace. President George Bush is going to Africa this week not to issue ultimatums or to rally American troops. Yes, American soldiers may set foot on African soil, but if they arrive in Liberia they will do so as peace-makers, not as invaders - a symbol of a belated American concern in a continent tormented by poverty and despair.
Astonishingly, this is the first extended visit to sub-Saharan Africa by a Republican president. In the same way as everything else that is organised by the most image-obsessed White House, the visit has been minutely choreographed. Mr Bush is studiously avoiding crisis points including Sudan, Zimbabwe, the Democratic Republic of Congo and, of course, Liberia.
The five countries he will visit are Africa's better advertisements: stable and democratic Senegal, post-apartheid South Africa, economically dynamic Botswana, and Uganda, with its impressive record in tackling HIV/Aids, before wrapping up his trip in Nigeria, which is certainly corrupt and violent but whose population and oil wealth make it, with South Africa, an indispensable African superpower.
But, at every stop, unpleasant realities will loom large.
In South Africa, Mr Bush will lean on the President, Thabo Mbeki, to step up the pressure on Zimbabwe's President, Robert Mugabe, to change his ways. When he goes to Kampala, Mr Bush will have to set aside mutual congratulations over the fight against Aids to tackle President Yoweri Museveni on Uganda's backing for some of the most vicious militias involved in the Congo.
In Nigeria, the crisis in Liberia will top the agenda. Nigeria's President, Olusegun Obansanjo, was in Monrovia yesterday to offer the Liberian leader, Charles Taylor, an asylum deal that would clear the way for the dispatch of US peace-keepers. Meanwhile, Mr Bush has bought himself a little time by sending specialists to "assess" how the US could best intervene to restore order, while Mr Taylor decides if he will meet the White House's demand that he step down.
Ahead of the trip, the message in Washington has been upbeat. Officials reel off Mr Bush's various moves to help Africa - the $15bn (£9bn) package to fight Aids unveiled in his State of the Union message in January, the $10bn Millennium Challenge Account supposed to boost US aid to countries that promote democracy and the market economy, and his initiative to help education across the continent.
But scratch a little deeper and the reality is less impressive. The pledged Aids money, which theoretically triples US resources committed to tackling the disease, has not been properly funded by Congress. For all the promise of the Millennium Account, US-Africa trade fell by 15 per cent last year, while US aid to the continent is down by 6 per cent this year, the Congressional Research Service shows.
Brandishing the Aids initiative, the Bush administration likes to maintain that the US, not Europe, is leading the campaign to help Africa. It rails at Europe for the iniquities of the Common Agricultural Policy and its hostility to GM foods. The truth is Washington is at least as guilty of thwarting African development, with farm subsidies (including $3bn to prop up uncompetitive American cotton producers) that make it virtually impossible for African countries to export agricultural goods to the US.
For a decade (since the disastrous 1993 humanitarian mission to Somalia), the US has regarded involvement in Africa with the deepest suspicion. In 1994, to its abiding shame, the Clinton administration refused to intervene to halt the unfolding genocide in Rwanda, and thereafter America's deeds have rarely matched its words.
By and large, the dirty work has been left to the main former colonial powers, Britain and France. While campaigning for the presidency in 2000, Mr Bush declared frankly that Africa "doesn't fit into the national strategic interests, as far as I can see them", and no one disagreed. So why should a five-day whistle-stop tour make any difference? The answer to that - as to so many others - is 11 September, 2001. In the fight against terrorism, which Mr Bush has made the centrepiece of his presidency, Africa has become a vital part of the chessboard. It was the August 1998 attacks on US embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam that made Osama bin Laden a household name, and even before that he had been operating out of Sudan.
Today, al-Qa'ida is entrenched in the Horn of Africa, a region at the centre of the "arc of instability" stretching across the Arab world into Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan, and from where it may have plotted the 2002 terrorist attacks in Kenya. And just suppose Niger really had been selling uranium to Iraq? As Afghanistan and Somalia have shown, terrorists thrive off failed states.
Africa has more than its share of the latter and Aids could add to their number. That is the political menace of the disease, beyond the human tragedy. For governments and societies already weak and vulnerable, Aids could be the tipping point into anarchy.
And if the US is ever to reduce the dependence on imported Middle Eastern oil that locks Washington into the turbulent politics of the Gulf, Africa is an unavoidable alternative. Suddenly, a stable and more prosperous Africa fits in to America's national strategic interests.
But this time, Washington's habitual quick fix of military intervention is all but irrelevant. About a thousand US peace-keepers in Liberia may be a symbol of good American intentions, but Liberia is the tiniest fragment of Africa.
Under its new doctrine of forward defence, the US is looking for permanent bases on the continent - but these would be garrisons in the campaign against terror, not the guarantors of a 21st-century Marshall Plan for Africa. Mr Bush's trip is a spectacular gesture in the direction of a region desperately looking to the US for help. But Africa will not be remade overnight.Reuse content