Ask George W. Bush how to set a high bar for American greatness

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The question of America’s greatness has been emblazoned across a red baseball cap, propagated as a Twitter hashtag and fired back and forth as a debate volley throughout this campaign season. It’s boiled down whether America needs to return to some bygone era of greatness, or whether America is already the greatest nation in the world.

At one of the presidential debates, Hillary Clinton stressed it’s “very important for us to make clear to our children that our country really is great,” while Donald Trump said “this is a great country, this is a great land… and my whole concept was to make America great again.”

{mosads}But how is greatness measured? More importantly, how is that greatness is defined?

Polls have asked voters to answer the question by which year was best. You don’t have to look very far back, though, to find a shining example of America at its greatest.

In January 2003, President George W. Bush stood before Congress and unveiled a sweeping five-year emergency plan to prevent seven million new HIV/AIDS infections and save the lives of two million patients who needed antiretroviral drugs.

‘‘Today, on the continent of Africa, nearly 30 million people have the AIDS virus – including 3 million children under the age of 15. There are whole countries in Africa where more than one-third of the adult population carries the infection,” Bush told Congress. “More than 4 million require immediate drug treatment. Yet across that continent, only 50,000 AIDS victims – only 50,000 — are receiving the medicine they need.’’

In his State of the Union address, Bush called the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) “a work of mercy beyond all current international efforts to help the people of Africa.”

As stated in the United States Leadership Against Global HIV/AIDS, Tuberculosis, and Malaria Act of 2003, the congressional authorization for PEPFAR, “The United States has the capacity to lead and enhance the effectiveness of the international community’s response by providing substantial financial resources, technical expertise, and training,” promoting vaccine research and “making available pharmaceuticals and diagnostics for HIV/AIDS therapy.”

We can, so we did. Simple as that. It was bold, and even surprising.

Bush’s speechwriter at the time, Michael Gerson, later became a fellow at the ONE Campaign and reflected on the progress of PEPFAR in July 2014. “An initiative of this scale was utterly unexpected. Bush’s strongest political supporters had not demanded it. His strongest critics, at least for a time, remained suspicious,” Gerson recalled, stressing that despite more work to be done “much of a generation has been saved from needless death.”

“PEPFAR is perhaps the greatest American work of mercy since the Marshall Plan,” Gerson added. “And Americans should know about it and be proud of it.”

In results released at the end of 2015, PEPFAR was providing life-saving drugs to 9.5 million people. In fiscal year 2015, 267,000 HIV-free babies were born to HIV-positive women thanks to treatment that prevented passage of the virus to their infants. These aren’t just statistics to tick off, but men, women and children with hopes, dreams, loves and now, thankfully, lives.

Bush, who has been working to provide cervical cancer screenings and HPV vaccines in Africa since leaving the Oval Office, said in 2015 that he found it “morally unacceptable for the United States to stand aside while millions of people died from a disease we could treat.”

In that single quote, with his legacy of action on the crisis, Bush illuminated what makes America great.

America is greatest and strongest when it extends a hand to those who, by political conventional wisdom, it should care about the least. A great America doesn’t look at a suffering continent and dismiss the people within as just Africans, and doesn’t look at a region in turmoil to dismiss the victims as just Yazidis or just Syrians.  

A good America does not equal a weak America. A compassionate America is not a losing America. And humanitarian crises don’t happen in a vacuum – Bush rightly pointed out that healthy, whole societies make stable economic and security partners, while those crumbling under crises are prone to become “exporters of danger.”

An America on the right path embraces righteousness and doesn’t rank other lives as less worthy of protection. PEPFAR sets that high bar, and challenges us to accurately define and share even more American greatness.

Bridget Johnson is a Senior fellow with the news and public policy group, Haym Salomon Center and D.C. bureau chief for PJ Media.

The views expressed by contributors are their own and not the views of The Hill.

Tags AIDS Donald Trump George W. Bush Hillary Clinton HIV presidential election

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