Democracy Lab

What George W. Bush Did Right

The 43rd president of the United States did a great thing for humankind -- but most Americans have no idea.

Which United States president will go down in history as the greatest humanitarian to have served in the office? The Republican Herbert Hoover is often known as the "Great Humanitatarian" for his work administering famine relief in post-World War I Europe (and Bolshevik Russia) in the 1920s -- but he did all that before he actually became president. Others might make the case for Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the Democrat who succeeded Hoover in the White House, whose New Deal initiatives relieved poverty and sickness on a grand scale within the United States.

But I'd suggest that there's one president whose contribution dwarfs all the others. Unlike Hoover, he launched his program while he was in office, and unlike FDR, he received virtually no votes in return, since most of the people who have benefited aren't U.S. citizens. In fact, there are very few Americans around who even associate him with his achievement. Who's this great humanitarian? The name might surprise you: it's George W. Bush.

I should say, right up front, that I do not belong to the former president's political camp. I strongly disapproved of many of his policies. At the same time, I think it's a tragedy that the foreign policy shortcomings of the Bush administration have conspired to obscure his most positive legacy -- not least because it saved so many lives, but because there's so much that Americans and the rest of the world can learn from it. Both his detractors and supporters tend to view his time in office through the lens of the "war on terror" and the policies that grew out of it. By contrast, only a few Americans have ever heard of PEPFAR, the U.S. President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, which President Bush announced in his State of the Union address in 2003.

Fast forward a decade later, and in his own State of the Union address on Tuesday night, President Barack Obama only briefly mentioned the goal of "realizing the promise of an AIDS-free generation" -- an allusion to the long-term aim of PEPFAR. Yet President Obama's most recent budget proposals actually propose to cut spending on the program. That's a pity. This might have been a good moment to celebrate ten years of an unprecedented American success in fighting one of the world's most pernicious and destructive diseases.

In his 2003 speech, President Bush called upon Congress to sponsor an ambitious program to supply antiretroviral drugs and other treatments to HIV sufferers in Africa. Since then, the U.S. government has spent some $44 billion on the project (a figure that includes $7 billion contributed to the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis, and Malaria, a multilateral organization). By way of comparison, America's most recent aircraft carrier -- which will join the 10 we currently have in service -- is set to cost $26.8 billion. One medical expert calls PEPFAR the "largest financial commitment of any country to global health and to treatment of any specific disease worldwide."

It's impossible to tell exactly how many lives the program has saved, though Secretary of State John Kerry recently claimed that 5 million people are alive today because of it. That's probably as good an estimate as any.

Just to give you an idea of the scale, here are some headline figures from a recent op-ed by U.S. Global AIDS coordinator Eric Goolsby:

In 2012 alone, PEPFAR directly supported nearly 5.1 million people on antiretroviral treatment -- a three-fold increase in only four years; provided antiretroviral drugs to prevent mother-to-child transmission of HIV to nearly 750,000 pregnant women living with the disease (which allowed approximately 230,000 infants to be born without HIV); and enabled more than 46.5 million people to receive testing and counseling.

So it's safe to say this one program has been a titanic force for good over the past decade. The number of deaths from AIDS has been steadily declining over the past few years, and PEPFAR has certainly been a big help. But ask an American -- or a Western European -- if they've ever heard of the program, and they're almost certainly to draw a blank. That's partly because the United States has done very little to publicize the success of PEPFAR, and partly because the Bush presidency was overshadowed by much more high-profile aspects of his foreign policy (such as the invasion of Iraq). Indeed, Bush still enjoys high popularity ratings in Africa, where he's widely regarded as one of the continent's great benefactors. (Meanwhile, the Obama administration's proposed PEPFAR cuts have triggered protests around Africa -- even in Kenya, where the president's family ties have ensured him plenty of favorable coverage.)

"Bush did more to stop AIDS and more to help Africa than any president before or since," says New York Times correspondent Peter Baker, who's writing a history of the Bush-Cheney White House that's due to appear in October. "He took on one of the world's biggest problems in a big, bold way and it changed the course of a continent. If it weren't for Iraq, it would be one of the main things history would remember about Bush, and it still should be part of any accounting of his presidency."

And yet no good turn goes unpunished. PEPFAR has also come in for criticism due to certain stipulations imposed on the program by conservative members of the U.S. Congress, who have pressured its administrators to promote abstinence and exclude prostitutes from treatment. But sources close to PEPFAR tell me that those restrictions have proven little hindrance on the ground.

In some ways, indeed, such complaints obscure the larger point. In an age of continuing partisan gridlock in Washington, what's really astonishing about PEPFAR is the way that it has continued to enjoy brought-based support from both Republicans and Democrats. Jack Chow, who served as special representative of U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell on Global HIV/AIDS, notes that the idea of placing the United States at the forefront of the global war on AIDS was one area where both religious conservatives and socially active liberals managed to find common ground. "Bush wanted to do the right thing by fulfilling this humanitarian impulse," says Chow. "He didn't really do it for political purposes, in my opinion. I think he genuinely felt that the American response was slipping behind what was needed."

In so doing, Chow contends, Bush paved the way for an era in which global health assistance has become a prominent new instrument of U.S. statecraft. After all, spending so much money hasn't just boosted America's image among Africans; rolling back the widespread scourge of AIDS has protected social institutions in these countries from degradation and collapse, thus contributing to security and effective governance.

Surely this is the sort of business that America should be in. Yet the Obama administration is aiming to slash our commitment to this most potent form of smart diplomacy just at the moment when the possibility of wiping out this horrific disease is finally in sight. This is not the time to retreat.

Photo by JENNY VAUGHAN/AFP/Getty Images

Democracy Lab

Martyrs of the Revolution

If history is any guide, today’s assassination in Tunisia could set off a dangerous revolutionary dynamic.

You don't have to be a Middle East scholar to know that the big story from Tunisia today is bad news for that country's revolution, which many saw as the bright light of the Arab Spring. An unknown assailant has killed opposition leader Chokri Belaid, the head of an alliance of secular leftist parties known as the Popular Front. He was also a prominent critic of Ennahda, the Islamist party that's now in charge of Tunisia's post-revolutionary government. Belaid's killer shot him three times as he was leaving his home. (The photo above shows Belaid's father and wife mourning him in a Tunis hospital.)

Tunisia has been swept by political violence in recent months, much of it seemingly engineered by religious conservatives against liberal secularists. Just a few days ago, Belaid was accusing Ennahda of giving a "green light" to political assassinations. So it's easy to see how his killing could exacerbate the existing tensions within Tunisian society.

This is, potentially, not only bad news for Tunisia. It also bodes ill for broader democratization within the Middle East. Because of its relatively sophisticated political culture and its comparatively robust institutions, Tunisia is regarded by many onlookers as the Arab Spring country with the best preconditions for success. If it stumbles, the likelihood of a positive outcome for other democratic aspirants, like Egypt or Libya, starts to look even shakier.

So let's hope that Belaid's killing doesn't throw the Tunisian revolution off track. But if history is any guide, Tunisia's leaders will need all their powers of persuasion to ensure that tensions don't escalate. Past revolutions have often been punctuated by political killings, which all too often have marked the start of spirals of radicalization.

In the larger sense, of course, "political killing" is precisely what many revolutions are about -- the channeling of violence for the purpose of far-reaching social change. (No single event guaranteed that the English Civil War would go on more than the execution of King Charles I.) Revolutions are grand theaters of emotion, so the murder of a symbolic political figure can serve as a powerful catalyst for action. And you can always bet that there will be power-hungry politicians around to seize the moment.

Perhaps the best example of this dynamic occurred during the French Revolution, when the moderate revolutionary Charlotte Corday took it upon herself to attack the leading Jacobin, Jean-Paul Marat, stabbing him fatally in his bath in July 1793. Corday was caught and guillotined shortly thereafter. But Jacobin-in-chief Maximilien Robespierre, portraying Marat's assassination as an example of what faced insufficiently vigilant revolutionaries, used the event to consolidate his hold on power -- and as a trigger for the Reign of Terror that followed.

From the modern-day perspective, perhaps the most fascinating thing about Marat's death is the way that his supporters quickly turned him into an evocative icon of revolutionary passions. The entire National Convention (the revolutionary parliament) turned out for his funeral. Jacque-Louis David's famous painting of the dead Marat in his bath became the emblematic work of pro-revolutionary propaganda. Zealous Jacobins even cut out Marat's heart and hung it from the ceiling of one of their revolutionary clubs. Even the Soviet Union memorialized Marat, naming streets and a battleship after him.

The Soviets, indeed, understood a thing or two about the uses of the cult of revolutionary martyrdom. When vengeful anti-communists executed 26 imprisoned revolutionaries in 1918 -- the "26 Baku commissars" of subsequent legend -- the Bolsheviks immediately stylized their deaths into an epic of heroic political sacrifice.

But perhaps the most fateful (it not fatal) escalation of that same year took place after Fanni Kaplan's attempt to kill the Bolshevik leader, Vladimir Lenin, on August 30. Kaplan managed to hit him with two of the three shots from her Browning pistol, but Lenin survived the shooting. Like Corday, she was executed soon thereafter -- and Lenin, again following his hero Robespierre, used the occasion to launch an all-encompassing "Red Terror" aimed at counterrevolutionaries (which conveniently included many of his own enemies on the Left). Lenin's campaign swept away basic civil liberties for the better part of the next century.

A similar dynamic reveals itself again and again. On May 1, 1979, it was the assassination of Morteza Motahhari, Ayatollah Khomeini's beloved student and confidant, that prompted one of the major turning points in Iran's Islamic Revolution. Motahhari was one of the most important intellectual architects of Khomeini's plans for clerical rule, a role that made him a prime target for the radical leftist groups that were determined to shape the revolution in their own image. Motahhari was also something of an ersatz son for Khomeini, so it's hard to overestimate the emotional impact that his death had on the elderly ayatollah.

The revelation that a Marxist guerilla group was behind the killing confirmed Khomeini's deep-seated suspicions about the revolution's secular and leftist supporters, and prompted him to move ahead with his plans to defend clerical rule against them. Just four days later, he issued a decree establishing the Revolutionary Guard, a new armed force beholden directly to him. Later waves of attacks on officials of the new regime in the years that followed (especially a 1981 bombing that killed several top leaders, including Ayatollah Mohammed Beheshti, another one of Khomeini's favorites) triggered brutal reprisals and contributed to the deepening of the revolutionary police state.

By such grim standards, the portents for Tunisia are not the worst. The first reaction from Prime Minister Hamadi Jebali, a member of Ennahda, gestured in the right direction: He condemned Belaid's killing and declared those behind the murder to be "enemies of the revolution." He has since dissolved the government, promising to set up a new one that will be more inclusive -- only to have his own party reject that plan, creating even more uncertainty. Meanwhile, that hasn't done much to placate opposition protestors, who stormed Ennahda offices around the country. Belaid's brother has blamed Ennahda leader Rached Ghannouchi for the hit.

As things stand now, it appears unlikely that Tunisia will break out into civil war; so far the country's leftists have shown little inclination to violence. The more probable risk is that this could mark the start of a nearly insurmountable split within the revolutionary camp, with serious consequences for Tunisia's long-term instability. Ominously, the protestors now battling police in the streets are already calling for a "second revolution."

Needless to say, political killings are always bad. But stable societies at least have the institutions to cope with the consequences. (For all the controversy over the assassination of John F. Kennedy, no one could seriously argue that the American political system was turned on its head by his death.) Societies undergoing revolutionary transitions, by contrast, are subject to extreme volatility, and the drama of a high-profile murder can quickly push things in a bad direction.

One can only hope that Tunisia's politicians succeed in moderating the passions likely to be aroused by Belaid's assassination. If history is any indication, they will need to move carefully. It's vital that the authorities do everything they can to ensure a proper investigation of the death, that they show that they have no intention of exploiting it for their own political gain, and that they will not allow a culture of impunity for violent acts (including those committed by fellow Islamists). Indeed, Belaid's death could even have a positive influence if it serves to push Ennahda to crack down on its own extremists.

This is, of course, all much easier said than done at a time when emotions will be running high on the street. Recent events in Egypt demonstrate how quickly a revolutionary government can lose legitimacy when it cracks down on protests. Let's hope that Tunisia can still make the grade.

FETHI BELAID/AFP/Getty Images