Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Bush: Africa's "compassionate conservative"

By DeWayne Wickham

A few hours before one of the nation’s leading African American organizations made what many would consider an oxymoronic gesture of bestowing its Distinguished Humanitarian Service Award upon President Bush, a senior State Department official tried to make the case for that action.

“From a policy point, I’ve never seen Africa policy better served than under President Bush,” said Jendayi Frazer, the Assistant Secretary of State for the Bureau of African Affairs. “There’s not a single thing that we said we were going to do in 2000 that we haven’t done…

“We’ve done everything we said we were going to do and we’ve done far more than I ever expected, and I’ve been working Africa issues for more than 30 years. The administration’s record far exceeded my own expectations,” Frazer boasted.

Of course, every president – even one as maligned as Bush – tries to put the best face on the things he’s done. And there is usually no shortage of political appointees who stand ready to sing their praise.

But the honor Bush received last week from Africare, the oldest and largest black-run African aid organization, didn’t come from a right wing group bent on burnishing his record. And Frazer – who soon will leave government for a position at Carnegie Mellon University – is no self-serving flatterer.

Despite Bush’s failure to live up to his “compassionate conservative” label at home, he did better than most people are willing to give him credit for in his dealings with Africa, a continent long victimized by the geopolitical tug of war between America and its adversaries.

“The Bush administration has broadened and deepened U.S. policy towards Africa,” said Melvin Foote, president and CEO of Constituency for Africa, a coalition of groups that work to improve conditions in Africa. “I don’t know if it got involved for all the right reasons, but once it got involved it realized this was a good thing to do,” Foote said of the Bush administration’s efforts to stabilize Africa’s fledgling democracies and combat its daunting health problems.

Most impressive of these efforts has been Bush’s efforts to stop the spread and treat the victims of AIDS in sub-Sahara Africa, where there were 22 million people infected with HIV at the end of last year.

Earlier this year Bush signed a bill that authorized up to $48 billion to combat HIV/AIDS tuberculosis, and malaria – most of it to be spent in sub-Sahara Africa – between 2009 and 2013. Since 2003, the Bush administration has provided funding to increase the number of Africans receiving antiretroviral drugs from 50,000 to about 1.4 million, Frazer said.

“It’s probably true that the Bush administration has directed more resources to the African AIDS problem than did the Clinton administration,” said Nicole Lee in a grudging offering of support. But Bush’s African AIDS program has been "a double-edge sword,” said Lee, executive director of TransAfrica, a Washington-based advocacy organization for Caribbean and African policy.

It’s been undermined, Lee said, by the Gag Rule, a Bush administration policy that forbids foreign nongovernmental organizations from receiving U.S financial support if they offer abortion or abortion counseling.

This kind of criticism is unwarranted, Frazer said, because Bush rescinded the Gag Rule’s application to its African AIDS relief program in 2003. “It’s one of those little known-things that’s already been taken care of that the activists are still activated about,” she said.

She’s right; the rule’s application to the Africa program was rescinded 5 years ago – an action that largely has escaped public notice by Bush’s right-wing supporters and his left-wing critics.

What shouldn’t go unnoticed by historians is what Bush did to combat the scourge of AIDS in Africa.

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