George W. Bush will go down in history as one of the worst American presidents ever, the “decider” who was responsible for the disastrous invasion of Iraq. It may therefore come as a surprise that Bush is widely popular across wide swaths of eastern and southern Africa, where he is justifiably credited with launching the successful campaign to provide AIDS medications that has already helped to save millions of lives.
Antiretroviral drugs started to come into wide use in Western countries in 1996-97, and people with AIDS who had been about to die made miraculous recoveries and went back to work. But the Clinton administration did nothing to spread the life-saving drugs to the millions suffering in Africa. The United States even defended the big pharmaceutical companies, who were changing $10,000 per person a year for the medications.
Enter George Bush. In 2003, he unexpectedly tripled American funding for AIDS in Africa, and then five years later more than tripled it again. Only 50,000 African got the medications back in 2003; the figure today is 7 million, two-thirds paid for by the United States. I have just been to Swaziland, the worst hit country on the continent, where I learned first-hand just how successful the campaign has been, and how much Bush is respected for starting it (as I report in The Nation, “The Campaign Against AIDS in Africa Is Saving Lives—So Why Isn’t the US Investing More In It?”).
In Bush’s memoirs, he dismisses the theory that he proposed the big anti-AIDS effort as compensation for the violent invasion he was about to launch against Iraq. Let us take him at his word. Whatever his motivation, his history-changing act may just be another example of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s conviction that even people who have dark sides are also capable of great humanity.