Published April 25, 2013
George W. Bush, not Barack Obama, is the real American hero in Africa.
Take it from me, a liberal Democrat who voted for Obama twice. I know a little about Africa: I have been to the continent 17 times over the last 32 years.
In particular, I have a great interest in South Sudan; I first traveled there in March 2008, and I have been back 13 since.
South Sudan is the mostly Christian nation that won its independence from Sudan after a half-century of civil war; in 2011, South Sudan was admitted into the United Nations as a full member state.
Sudan, of course, is the rogue Muslim nation that once harbored Usama Bin Laden and has been listed by the U.S. and Israel as a sponsor of terrorism for decades.
Needless to say, South Sudan is much better off as a free and independent nation; it is able, at last, to chart its own pro-American, pro-Western course.
Yet there is much more to South Sudan.
For five years, now, I have entranced and, yes, haunted by the land and its people. The land is so beautiful, the people are so friendly. And yet they are plagued by many challenges. And some Americans have really stood up to help--most notably, the 43rd President, George W. Bush.
Hard to believe, maybe, but true.
Back in early 2008, when I started my work in South Sudan--I have been working closely with Christian Solidarity International--everyone was excited about the possibility of Barack Obama becoming president.
After all, he was the son of a Kenyan--and Kenya is a neighboring country. Surely, the first African-American president would do great things for the world, including Africa.
Indeed, after Obama won the U.S. election in November of 2008, many Africans, in South Sudan, and everywhere else, were proud to wear T-shirts with photos of President Obama on them
Yet now that Obama’s first term has drawn to a close, the positive buzz about Obama has dramatically shifted; the Obama excitement, and the T-shirts, have most disappeared.
In fact, South Sudanese today are thinking more about another U.S. president: that would be Obama’s predecessor, Bush 43. As a liberal Democrat and Obama supporter, I was particularly struck by this. Yes, Bush is a hero in Africa, and Americans, too, should know why.
No American president, before or since, has had Bush’s vision and determination to save so many millions of lives.
For Africans, that vision traces back to the early years of his presidency. In his 2003 State of the Union Address, Bush introduced the "President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief" (PEPFAR.)
And that proposal had real meat: $15 billion over five years, as well as a serious look at African health problems, beyond HIV/AIDS.
Bush proposed it, and his proposal wasn’t just a few throw-away lines in a speech; even as the Iraq war raged, Bush spent precious political capital to get PEPFAR enacted.
The result was the largest upfront contribution ever made by any country to fight HIV. And the numbers are staggering.
Five million children, women and men have received antiretroviral treatment under PEPFAR. In 2010 alone, 600,000 pregnant mothers received treatment so their newborn children would not be infected.
Yes, millions of people live productive, healthy lives due to Bush 43.
This past winter, the National Academy of Science did an evaluation of President Bush's PEPFAR. It said:
"Overall, PEPFAR has reset the world's expectations for what can be accomplished with ambitious goals, ample funding, and humanitarian commitment to a public health crisis….Working with a wide range of international and local partners, PEPFAR has expanded HIV testing and increased the number of people living with HIV who are receiving care and being treated with antiretroviral drugs.
The initiative has trained hundreds of thousands of service providers, strengthened partner countries' health systems, provided additional nonclinical support services for people living with HIV, and made an unprecedented investment in programs for orphans and vulnerable children living with or affected by HIV."
So those are the data, and they are compelling. But even more compelling is what one sees on the ground in Africa: I've seen children orphaned by parents who lost their fight against HIV in Africa.They live on the streets, stealing just to get food to eat, sleeping outside and sometimes selling themselves to survive. Without parents these children turn to violence and crime just to eat.
Orphans turning to theft or even worse can destabilize communities and countries.
George W. Bush saw this, too. He had a vision. He understood what saving lives would mean not only to the individuals and families saved, but also to the communities who have experienced so much death from HIV. As a result, a whole continent is much better off, including my beloved South Sudan.
Bush 43 is no longer president, of course, and yet his great work continues. Even as his presidential library is dedicated in Dallas on Thursday, April 25, he is still looking to mobilize resources to make real change in Africa.
In particular, working closely alongside his wife Laura, Bush 43 is now taking on a new fight: helping women fight cervical cancer.
When a woman is infected with HIV her chances of getting cervical cancer increase, but of course, cervical cancer strikes far beyond HIV: In the United States, there are some 12,000 new cases each year; in the world, more than 500,000 new cases.
Indeed, cervical cancer, on the rise around the world, should be a new focus for leaders across the board--politics, diplomacy, philanthropy, and science.
All are desperately needed.
Millions of lives hang in the balance.
In the meantimes, this liberal commentator thanks president and Mrs. Bush every single day for their amazing and tireless work for humanity. They are wonderful role models for future leaders around the world. I wish more leaders would follow the shining example of George W. and Laura Bush.