President Bush sought Wednesday to portray himself as a compassionate global leader in the fight against HIV/AIDS, but critics said his strategy suffered from the go-it-alone approach that marked his war against terrorism.
“We are fighting one of the great tragedies of human history,” Bush told a packed community hall at People for People, a ministry of the Greater Exodus Baptist Church. “This isn’t a minor tragedy. It’s just not a blip in history. It is a great tragedy. That’s how I view it.”
Standing in front of a massive banner reading, “Compassion in Action,” Bush stressed his commitment to fighting the epidemic, which killed 3 million people last year, orphaned 14 million children and afflicted 40 million people worldwide.
To the apparent surprise of some, Bush brought up the use of condoms in combating AIDS. A rustle in the crowd greeted his remarks as he mentioned his administration’s “ABC” approach to prevention.
“That stands for: Abstain, Be faithful in marriage, and, when appropriate, use Condoms,” Bush said. But he left no doubt that encouraging people to abstain from sex outside of marriage would remain primary to his policy for fighting the disease.
AIDS activists, who have scheduled protests against the Bush policy worldwide today, said his administration had shortchanged the prevention and treatment programs of a global AIDS fund while directing limited funding to faith-based organizations and other groups that emphasized abstinence over condoms and other prevention strategies.
The “stubborn and cruel unilateralism” of Bush’s policy “unfortunately is costing the lives of people with AIDS,” said Asia Russell, director of international policy for Health GAP, a U.S.-based activist group.
Activists compared Bush’s AIDS policy to his decision to go to war against Iraq, which angered many longtime U.S. allies, and his decision to remove the United States from negotiations on the Kyoto Protocol. That international agreement, which required industrialized nations to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions, was signed by 178 countries in July 2001.
The Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, which the U.S. and United Nations helped establish in 2002, finances programs in 120 countries.
Some of the White House’s $15-billion “emergency plan for AIDS relief” has gone to the global fund, but some has been given to agencies in 14 African and Caribbean nations with the greatest needs. Bush said that he was adding Vietnam to the list of “focus” countries.
“We’re setting the example for others to follow,” Bush said. “That’s what a leader does. America leads so that others will follow.”
Bush combined his brief trip to Philadelphia with politics, attending a lunch and reception in nearby Villanova, where he pulled in $1.4 million for the Republican National Committee. It was his 29th visit as president to Pennsylvania, one of the largest of the 20 states considered up for grabs in November’s presidential election.
The Media Fund, an independent anti-Bush group, offered up a flurry of radio and newspaper ads accusing the president of breaking campaign promises. Democratic lawmakers and candidates criticized his record on AIDS.
Calling the battle against AIDS “one of the greatest global challenges of our time,” Sen. John F. Kerry of Massachusetts, the presumed Democratic presidential nominee, called for “real resources and a real commitment that is based on science -- not politics -- to fight this epidemic.”
Kemper reported from Washington, Wallsten from Philadelphia. Times staff writer Elizabeth Shogren contributed to this report from Washington.