Laura Bush and the ABC's of AIDS
On Friday, President Bush sent the only remaining popular member of his White House team to address the UN General Assembly meeting on HIV/AIDS. Just days after a UN study reported progress in slowing the spread of AIDS, a smiling First Lady Laura Bush demonstrated why her husband's United States may still be the biggest barrier to defeating the global scourge.
A sure sign of the lack of seriousness of the Bush administration was the make up of the American delegation itself. The packed conference attracted the presidents of numerous African countries and featured the foreign ministers of France and Brazil. In stark contrast, the United States sent the First Lady, who fronted a delegation featuring Bush cronies, among them Bush daughter Barbara, abstinence peddler and Bush AIDS advisor Anita Smith as well as Baptist Minister Herb Lusk of White House faith-based initiative fame.
The conference's reaction to the address by Laura Bush and the positions of the U.S. could be described as one of shock and awe. The United States balked at boosting global funding from $8 billion to $22 billion annually. The American team struck language from conference documents describing "men who have sex with men" or "sex workers," substituting the meaningless phrase "vulnerable groups." Even more disturbing, the United States joined Egypt, Sudan and other members of the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) in blocking public references to drug addicts, prostitutes and homosexuals in event papers.
The typically smiling Mrs. Bush blithely ignored these and other controversies and contradictions central to the American policy of AIDS. The First Lady told the assembled delegates:
"In parts of sub-Saharan Africa, new data shows that Africa's ABC model of AIDS prevention has led to dramatic declines in HIV infection rates in young men and women...All people need to know how AIDS is transmitted, and every country has an obligation to educate its citizens. This is why every country must also improve literacy, especially for women and girls, so that they can make wise choices that will keep them healthy and safe."
But when it comes to the ABC's of AIDS (abstinence, be faithful, condoms), the United States seems to have forgotten the alphabet. Almost from its inception, Bush's $15 billion AIDS initiative PEPFAR (the President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief) has come with conditions attached. Bowing to the religious right, the White House has steered over $1 billion to religious groups stressing abstinence and undermining condom education and distribution programs. It's no wonder a defensive Laura Bush was forced to defend her husband's wildly unrealistic focus on abstinence during her last visit to Africa in January:
"I'm always a little bit irritated when I hear the criticism of abstinence, because abstinence is absolutely 100 per cent effective in eradicating a sexually transmitted disease."
On Friday, though, it was UN Secretary General Kofi Annan who was irritated. He angrily told the delegates that if they "don't step up the fight drastically," the HIV/AIDS pandemic could become the "the single greatest reversal in the history of human development." He had a clear message for Laura Bush to take back to her husband, "This fight requires every president, every parliamentarian to say, 'AIDS stops with me.'"
Laura Bush no doubt smiled.