The Blog

Into Africa

Bush's rhetoric matches the reality.

11:00 PM, Feb 19, 2008 • By JOSEPH LOCONTE
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PRESIDENT BUSH AND THE First Lady are in Africa this week, visiting five countries--Benin, Ghana, Liberia, Rwanda, and Tanzania--that have benefited from his $15 billion initiative to combat HIV/AIDS. There is something to be said for a program that confounds liberals, libertarians, and radical Islamists.

"Too many nations continue to follow either the paternalistic notion that treats African countries as charity cases, or a model of exploitation that seeks only to buy up their resources," Bush told an audience at the National Museum of African Art last week. "America rejects both approaches." Sometimes the gulf between the rhetoric of U.S. foreign policy and the reality on the ground is monstrously wide. But not with regards to the Bush administration and Africa.

Consider the fact that before the Bush effort, barely 50,000 people were receiving U.S. assistance for HIV/AIDS treatment. Today, five years after launching the initiative, the President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) has treated nearly 1.5 million people scattered across 15 countries in Africa, Asia, and the Caribbean. It is likely that U.S.-funded anti-retroviral drugs have prevented more than 10 million new cases of mother-to-child HIV transmission. The administration has expanded its initiative to tackle malaria--an entirely preventable disease--which nevertheless kills millions every year, most of them young children. The $1.2 billion program buys mosquito nets, drugs, and indoor spraying. The president's goal, to cut malaria deaths in 15 African states by half, now seems achievable. In Tanzania, for example, the number of people treated for malaria plummeted from 500,000 in 2004 to 10,000 in 2007. In two years the program has reached 25 million people.

"Global health has graduated into being a mainstream foreign policy priority," says Stephen Morrison, an Africa specialist at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "It's a huge and historic and unprecedented policy by this administration . . . and it's predominantly an Africa-focused initiative."

Well, what's a cranky, Bush-hating, big-government liberal supposed to do? What most of them--from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to religious activist Jim Wallis--have in fact been doing, is to ignore or belittle the entire initiative. The administration, we're told, isn't spending enough to help the world's poor. It moralizes about sexual behavior. It relies on theology, not science. And there aren't enough condoms to go around.

The facts are a little different. PEPFAR already represents the largest-ever investment to combat a single disease in American history. In his State of the Union address, Bush announced he intended to double the U.S. commitment to fighting AIDS--to $30 billion. As for PEPFAR's abstinence approach: Numerous studies, some produced by the United Nations, support the contention that programs challenging risky behaviors that spread the HIV virus--drug use, promiscuity, prostitution--make for sound health policy. By contrast, liberal schemes that enable drug addiction or ignore sexually destructive lifestyles are neither humane nor effective. They amount to death on the installment plan. Just ask the AIDS orphans living on the streets of Abuja, Cape Town, Kampala, and Nairobi.

As for theology, here's a Bush doctrine that only crabby atheists like Sam Harris could find objectionable: "We believe that our brothers and sisters in Africa have dignity and value, because they bear the mark of our Creator. We believe our spirit is renewed when we help African children and families live and thrive." Well, sounds like the Salem witch trials, doesn't it? The truth about Bush's Christian faith is that it alone explains his willingness to expend political capital on a humanitarian program greeted at best with ambivalence by most of the party faithful.

Indeed, conservative leaders and think tanks--libertarians, realists, isolationists--often display the same scorn as liberals for Bush's Africa policy, if for different reasons. Africa is a basket case of corrupt regimes, we're told, and no amount of foreign aid can change that. Besides, the United States has few security interests in the region.