WASHINGTON, June 14, 2013 (AFP) - The White House on Friday insisted President Barack Obama's looming trip to Africa was overdue and would give great 'bang for the buck,' pushing back at concerns over the journey's cost.
Ben Rhodes, a top foreign policy aide to Obama, admitted that the president, despite his Kenyan heritage, had focused far more on other regions, including Asia and Europe, than Africa, despite crucial US interests there.
"For the United States to say we're a world leader except in this continent doesn't make any sense," said Rhodes, a deputy national security advisor.
"The US would be ceding its leadership position in the world if the president of the United States was not deeply engaged in Africa," Rhodes said.
Obama is due to travel to Senegal, South Africa and Tanzania on a trip beginning at the end of this month for his first prolonged stay on the continent since taking office.
He has previously visited sub-Saharan Africa only once as president, with a short stay in Ghana in 2009.
Rhodes noted that Obama had traveled multiple times to the Asia-Pacific region, as part of a rebalancing of US foreign policy there and had made many trips to Europe, so Africa needed some attention.
"Africa's a critically important region of the world. We have huge interests there. You've got some of the fastest growing economies in Africa. You've got a massively growing youth population.
"You've got key security and counterterrorism issues that we work on with African countries," he said, adding that key US interests in combating HIV/AIDS, and in supporting global health were also rooted in the continent.
"This is a deeply substantive trip and one that has been highly anticipated on the continent. Frankly, there's been great disappointment that the president hasn't traveled to Africa until this point other than a brief stop in Ghana."
"The president is not going to retreat from an entire continent."
The Washington Post reported on Thursday that plans for Obama to take a safari with his family in Tanzania had been canceled due to budgetary concerns.
The newspaper, citing a Secret Service planning document, said the excursion would have required Obama's counter-assault team to carry sniper rifles with high-caliber rounds that could neutralize cheetahs, lions or other animals.
The paper said Obama's Africa tour, his first since taking office in January 2009, could cost the US government between $60 million and $100 million, based on cost of similar trips in recent years.
The report comes as many government agencies struggle with mandatory budget cuts that took effect in March because US lawmakers failed to strike a wider budget deal.
Hundreds of Secret Service agents are dispatched for the president's overseas visits along with dozens of vehicles, planes and other military and security assets.
The White House said that it was up to the Secret Service to determine costs and security needs for the US leader abroad -- as was the case under former presidents George W. Bush and Clinton for instance.
Both Bush and Clinton undertook significant tours of Africa as president, requiring the vast security and logistical infrastructure that follows the US leader wherever he goes.
Rhodes, noting that other powers, including China, were seeking to increase their influence in Africa, portrayed Obama's upcoming visit as a smart investment.
"There will be a great bang for our buck for being in Africa.
"When you travel to regions like Africa that don't get a lot of presidential attention, you tend to have very long-standing and long-running impact from the visit."