Leading black US pastors have embarrassed the administration by questioning the sincerity of its commitment to increasing aid to Africa, dealing a blow to White House efforts to boost support for Republicans in a traditionally hostile constituency.
In a letter to the White House this week, the pastors demanded that George Bush give "ardent support" to Tony Blair's proposal that the leading industrialized countries would double official aid to the world's poorest continent over just five years.
A meeting with Condoleezza Rice, the Secretary of State, in May appeared to confirm the administration's commitment to the Africa cause, but last week Mr Bush made clear he would stick to the smaller amounts specified by the so-called Millennium Challenge account, unveiled in 2002.
This ties aid to "good governance" and the embrace of market economics by recipient countries. The goal was to double core US development aid by 2005. But disbursements have been held up by bureaucracy, and pressures arising from the huge US budget deficit.
The Rev Eugene Rivers, one of the pastors, told the Los Angeles Times some of his colleagues were upset that Mr Blair, who had "stood by the President on Iraq at enormous political cost to himself ... did not appear to be receiving the same level of support when it came to Africa". In less than a month, Mr Blair hosts the Gleneagles G8 summit at which aid for Africa will be a key topic, and the President's move threatens to take some of the gloss off the recent agreement by the wealthiest industrial nations, based on a deal between Britain and the US. It forgives $40bn (£22bn) of official debt owed by 18 of the world's poorest countries, many in Africa.
The US is also at odds with most of its G8 partners for its reluctance to act on global warming, the other big theme of the summit.
The letter, for which its authors are seeking 1,000 signatures, acknowledges that the Bush administration has tripled US financial assistance to Africa. But that, it says, was dwarfed by the sums spent on tax cuts and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Mr Rivers said: "If we can give a $140bn tax cut to the richest of the rich, who are not infrequently white, we can give $25bn (£13bn) to the poorest of the poor, who are not infrequently black." The US level of official aid is less than 0.2 per cent of GDP compared to the United Nations target of 0.7 per cent. But Washington says much aid is wasted or swallowed by corruption. It also says official aid statistics ignore the large amounts of US private sector assistance.
A rift with black religious leaders would be a political blow for Bush strategists. Republicans have fared poorly with African-American voters. But in 2004 Mr Bush significantly improved his showing compared to 2000, as he courted church communities, stressing his experience as a born-again Christian.
© 2005 Independent News & Media (UK) Ltd.