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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.

Corruption remains a problem, which is why the administration has linked foreign aid and trade to tangible reform through its Millennium Challenge Account. Problems persist, but, for the first time as a matter of U.S. policy, the Agency for International Development is prepared to withhold assistance until there are improvements in governance and economic freedom. Meanwhile, PEPFAR is targeting local, community-based groups over large, bureaucratic aid organizations. Last year nearly nine out of ten of the 2,200 organizations engaged were home-grown. It's all beginning to look like a revolution in America's approach to the developing world.

Is it really conceivable that the world's military and economic superpower should refuse to take any interest in the fate of Africa--when it has the capacity to act? As Bush put it during his stop in Rwanda: "It is irresponsible for nations to whom much has been given to sit on the sidelines when young babies are dying because of mosquito bites." America's example, in fact, has prodded G8 nations to step up their own commitments to help, yet another reminder that hardly any crisis in the world can be tackled without U.S. leadership. Yes, federal spending and budget deficits are massive problems. But they're not likely to be solved by a nation unmoved by the suffering and degradation of millions.

The claim that Africa has little to do with U.S strategic interests looks increasingly naïve. Scholars such as Philip Jenkins warn of a "cultural and religious confrontation" as Muslim populations compete with Christians and other groups for natural resources and religious influence. Can it really be unimportant that no other region of the world produces as many child soldiers and AIDS orphans as Africa? We know that al Qaeda and its allies thrive on the social chaos of failed states. We know that wherever Sharia law takes hold, extremism is bound to follow. Osama bin Laden, after all, plied his trade of terror while receiving sanctuary in the war-torn, Islamic dictatorship of Sudan.

Which brings us to the other group that bristles at Bush's Africa policy: radical Islamists. Since the attacks of 9/11, Muslim leaders (and their liberal sympathizers) have accused the United States of waging a "war on Islam." Conspiracy theories abound. The leader of the Muslim Brotherhood in Sudan, for example, claims that Americans "are behind all the tragedies that are taking place in Darfur." Bush's AIDS initiative must be part of the same subversive plot.

Perhaps the Islamists realize a fact completely overlooked by the Western media: A sizeable swath of the people being reached through PEPFAR are . . . Muslims. Many of the nations receiving assistance--Ethiopia, Kenya, Nigeria, Tanzania, Uganda--have significant Islamic populations. Scores of faith-based NGOs in these countries, including Catholic and evangelical, reach out to Muslims in need. Churches and mosques sometimes work together to help families in crisis. In Ivory Coast, U.S. officials joined imams at the nation's largest mosque for their first public discussion of HIV/AIDS. All of this is bad PR for al Qaeda Incorporated.

Bush's Africa trip culminates what surely ranks as the most principled, sustained, and strategic commitment to the African continent of any Western leader in memory. What a contrast to the Clinton years. There was no suggestion that failed states might present a security threat, no serious attempt to tackle the AIDS pandemic or develop a coherent foreign assistance program. When President Clinton made a trip to Ghana, tens of thousands rushed to greet him, but what came of it? As one observer put it, "the optics were astonishing." His policies were less so. Two images of Africa remain forever associated with the Clinton White House: the humiliating retreat of U.S. Marines from Somalia (which emboldened Osama bin Laden) and the shameful paralysis over the genocide in Rwanda.

It is too early to tell what George Bush's legacy in Africa will amount to; civil wars and political corruption stand ready to crush advances toward democracy and economic growth. But, by any rational measure, an untold deluge of human suffering already has been averted. The story of Kabanyana Renatha from Rwanda, for example, is becoming increasingly common. Kabanyana believes she lost two children to the disease before realizing she was HIV positive. She started getting treatment at the Masaka Health Center while she was pregnant with her seventh child. Her daughter, Clissa Uwimana, is now two-and-a-half years old and HIV-negative. "I feel strong, and I hope to raise my kids until they finish their school," she says. "I have hope for their future."

This week even the Bush administration's fiercest critics, if they were inclined, would receive a singular impression of America's engagement in a troubled region. This week we're seeing images of what Africa might become, what anyone with a shred of conscience would hope for all Africans--scenes of children playing at their mothers' knees, freed from sickness and fear, determined, fully alive. "Different people may have different views about you and your administration and your legacy," said Tanzanian president Kikwete during Bush's visit. "But we in Tanzania, if we are to speak for ourselves and for Africa, we know that you . . . have been good friends of our country and have been good friends of Africa."

Joseph Loconte is a senior fellow at Pepperdine University's School of Public Policy and a frequent contributor to THE DAILY STANDARD. He served as an informal advisor to the White House Office of Faith-based and Community Initiatives from 2001-03.