WASHINGTON-With the media spotlight on his successor and his Cabinet appointments, President Bush quietly received the first International Medal of PEACE for his fight against HIV/AIDS and malaria. Before a small audience of several hundred at the Saddleback Civil Forum on Global Health at the Newseum, Pastor Rick Warren presented the medal to the president on Monday, World AIDS Day.
Since its inception five years ago, The President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) has treated more than 2.1 million people living with the virus around the world, which exceeded the administration's goal. Prior to the president's HIV/AIDS program, only 50,000 people were receiving antiretroviral treatment for AIDS.
"It's the most underrated and misunderstood program of this administration," said Warren, who referred to PEPFAR as a "BHAG" (big, hairy, audacious goal).
Foes and friends alike of President Bush showered praise on him for PEPFAR, which promotes antiretroviral treatments administered through local clinics and churches around the world, mainly in Africa. Former President Clinton sent his commendation in a letter, while others did so by video, including President-elect Barack Obama, former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, philanthropists Bill and Melinda Gates, and rock star Bono, an outspoken activist in the fight against AIDS.
"You are a hero, sir," the leader of the band U2 said in his message to the president.
But the president, in a sit-down conversation with Warren, deflected any credit for the program.
"I don't deserve an award," he said. "The people who made this policy work deserve an award."
First lady Laura Bush and Warren's wife, Kay, joined the conversation, too, since both have been involved in global programs fighting AIDS. Dr. Mark Dybul, the White House coordinator for global AIDS programs, also received recognition.
With expenditures totaling $18.8 billion over the past five years, PEPFAR is the largest program focused on a single health pandemic, which has drawn criticism from some quarters for such use of taxpayer money. In Monday's discussions, President Bush, who disclosed that Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice made him promise to focus on Africa when she first joined his administration, said the investment is worthwhile not just for the lives it saves, but also for national security interests. In an ideological battle, he said, America's enemies recruit wherever hopelessness is found.
Obama in his video message to the president reiterated his promise to continue the program under his administration. Congress has already passed an additional $48 billion for programs fighting AIDS, tuberculosis, and malaria.
PEPFAR employs an unorthodox approach for a government program, with an emphasis on working through local infrastructure in preventing and treating HIV/AIDS, which claims the lives of 8,000 people around the world every day. World leaders have said that "millions of lives" have been saved through the program thus far.
"Rather than be paternalistic about our help, we expect you to be a partner in achieving our goals," President Bush said in reference to African leaders. "We trust you. ... It's not all that profound to align authority and responsibility."
Warren advocated the role of the local church in not only health initiatives, but also in education and healing for spiritual ills, which he said were also "pandemic."
"We won't be able to eradicate anything without churches," he said.
Government programs can only accomplish so much, Warren added, making reference to a one-legged stool approach to development.
"Government is justice," President Bush agreed. "Love comes from a higher calling ... God."
The president's unwillingness to deviate from his own agenda in general has earned him harsh criticism on many fronts, but when it comes to Africa, one of his advisers has said his stubbornness is his strong suit. Michael Gerson, who was a speechwriter and policy adviser to the president until 2006, wrote a column recently in The Washington Post titled "The Decency of George W. Bush." He described a meeting in 2005 where senior White House staff members were against a new initiative to fight malaria in Africa.
"In the crucial policy meeting," wrote Gerson, "one person supported it: the president of the United States, shutting off debate with a moral certitude that others have criticized."
The moral call to fight pandemics in Africa continues despite whatever economic climate the country is in, the president said.
"People get compassion fatigue," said Warren in an interview after the presentation. "Hollywood has moved on. Hollywood is having babies now. We say as the church, 'We're here to stay.' This isn't the flavor of the day."