SOTU: View From an African Basement

05/25/2011 11:50 am ET

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Some observations from a distance on the State of the Union, written in an African basement. I'm in a makeshift "Internet cafe" where everyone else is under 16 years of age. Here, as at home, the young are emissaries from our technological future. Internet connections go up and down, but you can buy CD-R disks in any neighborhoods and many Africans have two or three cell phones - one for each network used by family and friends. Technology is changing the Third World.

As expected, the President invoked terrorism many times. It's a foe that has killed roughly 3,400 Americans. But the viral terror of AIDS - an adversary that has killed many thousands of Americans and millions of Africans - received only lip service. Here's what he had to say:

We show compassion abroad because Americans believe in the God-given dignity and worth of a villager with HIV/AIDS, or an infant with malaria, or a refugee fleeing genocide, or a young girl sold into slavery ...

In recent years, you and I have taken unprecedented action to fight AIDS and malaria, expand the education of girls, and reward developing nations that are moving forward with economic and political reform.

West Africa has escaped the AIDS epidemic that has devastated countries further south, where 1 person in 5 has the disease. But it's spreading fast and signs of the coming war are everywhere. American presence and support is not as visible on this battlefront as many had hoped.

While there are some aid initiatives, there is little sign of "unprecedented action" or a sense of urgency. And much of the international aid that comes into these countries passes into the pockets of prosperous foreign consultants, with minimal impact on local health.

His threats against Iran fell on many deaf ears among the 80% of Muslims here and elsewhere who aren't Arab. Worse, the war in Iraq and the public belligerence against Iran will continue to convince them that his enemy is Islam, not terrorism. He's giving the extremists more international stature than they could ever earn on their own.

He invoked 9/11, but not the corporate neglect that killed 10 to 20 times more people at Bhopal than died in the World Trade Center. That neglect continues to maim, sicken and kill in smaller tragedies around the world, through environmental damage and the lack of worker safety measures. Some will note the omission.

He didn't mention the billions of Third Worlders who are inundated by Western images in TV, in magazines, and on billboards. These images fill many of them with dreams they imagine will be fulfilled only if they abandon their culture and their homes - a yearning that's often expressed through hopes of emigration to the US.

Strangers have stopped me in the street asking to be taken back to America, something that's happened to me elsewhere in the impoverished world. And why not? International economics and global media give them few other reasons for hope.

The President cited a "clear path to victory" that nobody else sees, in support of a war that neither Americans, Iraqis, nor the rest of the world either want or understand. For many, this confirmed their image of America as a remote, arbitrary superpower floating above the rest of the world like a Raja borne over a starving crowd on a golden litter.

The State of the Union was noted in passing by some here. There was nothing in it for them, so they went on with their lives. Here, as in America ...

(photo by RJ Eskow)