Bush and AIDS: empty promises

Administration lets ideology get in the way of policy.

The 15th International AIDS Conference began Sunday in Thailand, refocusing attention on the Bush administration’s policies to combat the AIDS epidemic. That ought to make U.S. officials squirm in their seats, because ideology and petty politics have muddied what started out as a promising program.

President George W. Bush deserved high praise for giving the AIDS epidemic the attention his predecessors never did. His five-year, $15 billion initiative to fight the disease tripled aid while galvanizing global efforts to reduce infection rates and make antiretroviral drugs more available.

But the president has undermined his own efforts from the beginning. In a sop to his religious base, 20 percent of American funding is earmarked for prevention efforts that emphasize abstinence over safe sex. The administration has pledged only $1 billion to the U.N. Global Fund, reinforcing its well-known disdain for multilateral solutions.

At times, Bush’s commitment to his AIDS initiative has appeared suspect. He failed to prod Congress to fully fund the program in its first year, and only recently signaled a willingness to buck the pharmaceutical lobby and provide cheaper, generic drugs.

Also, the administration recently cut U.S. delegation attendance at the Thailand conference. While administration spokesmen claim the move was intended to save money, it looks a lot like payback for the protests Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson endured at the 2002 conference.

The administration could not pick a worse time to play politics with AIDS. Worldwide, more than 36 million people live with the virus. Last year saw 5 million new infections and 3 million deaths, the highest one-year totals since 1981. While the epidemic is truly global, it exacts its greatest toll in Africa. Nearly 10 percent of the adult population across sub-Saharan Africa – about 25 million people – now has the virus.

The Bush administration could have used this year’s conference and its AIDS program in general to advance the fight against the epidemic. Instead, it has once again shown its compassionate rhetoric and conservative policies have little in common.