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Editorial: Bush's grand gesture / Targeting AIDS and Africa is America at its best

Monday, February 03, 2003

President Bush's commitment in his State of the Union message to put $15 billion over the next five years into the fight against AIDS in Africa and the Caribbean is commendable for two reasons. The first was the promise of important U.S. help with the AIDS pandemic. The second was the targeting of Africa, the continent hardest hit by AIDS and the least equipped to deal with it.

There is the usual caviling over what Mr. Bush promised. Some say it isn't enough. Others wonder if his opposition to birth-control programs will hamper the initiative. Finally, will the Republican president give with one hand and then let the Republican-controlled Congress take it away with the other?

We don't share those concerns. We see Mr. Bush's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief as a generous -- and unexpected -- commitment to harness U.S. energy and resources to try to deal with a tragic shortfall between the ravages the disease can wreak and the money necessary to deal with the problems it creates.

The emphasis on Africa is also timely. Mr. Bush had intended to visit five African countries in January until the evolving Iraq situation caused him to cancel the trip, which would have been his first to Africa. Mr. Bush's more cynical critics say he is helping Africa to try to get more of the African-American vote in 2004 than he received in 2000. They say also that the initiative against AIDS is an effort to respond to an active lobby, and to try to burnish the "compassionate" half of his compassionate conservatism.

Again, we don't think so. We prefer to see this initiative as an honest, America-at-its-best response to some grim facts. Nearly 30 million people in Africa have the AIDS virus; 3 million of them are younger than 15. Only 50,000 victims are getting the medicine they need. The rest are sentenced to join the 3.1 million people who died of AIDS last year.

The United States can do something about this and Mr. Bush has expressed America's willingness to attack the problem. He can easily brush off the grousing by pushing the aid through Congress on an urgent basis. If members of Congress want to show they have a heart too, they can raise the amount.

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