Last week, the nonpartisan think tank Atlantic Council presented former president George W. Bush with the Distinguished International Leadership Award for his administration’s efforts fighting the HIV and AIDS epidemic in Africa through the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR).
The award was given at the Atlantic Council’s annual fundraiser held in Washington, D.C., last Thursday. The 2018 honorees also included General Curtis M. Scaparrotti, who received the Distinguished Military Leadership Award; Starbucks executive chairman Howard Schultz, who received the Distinguished Business Leadership Award; and singer Gloria Estefan, who received the Distinguished Artistic Leadership Award.
Atlantic Council Chairman and 2007 Honoree General James L. Jones, Jr., began the annual fundraiser by calling it a “celebration of international leadership and tribute to the men and women who make the world a better place.”
During Jones’ remarks about the 43rd president, he pointed out PEPFAR “brought about the largest health initiative of one country” and “provided for lifelong HIV treatment for more than 13 million HIV patients, enabled more than 2.2 million babies to be born HIV-free, and assisted more than 6.4 million orphans, vulnerable children, and their caregivers.”
Jones also highlighted Bush’s “leadership in expanding NATO to include Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Slovakia, Slovenia, Romania, and Bulgaria.”
According to the Washington Post, “the organization has considered giving Bush the award for the past few years, but the Iraq War was always the stumbling block. This year, the jury looked at his work fighting AIDS, his foreign policy in Africa, and his leadership in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks.”
Unfortunately, Bush’s strength and leadership after 9/11 were often undervalued — or flat-out ignored — by many of Bush’s critics.
Consider Bush’s speech about Islam and Muslims on September 17, 2001, in which he noted “America counts millions of Muslims amongst our citizens, and Muslims make an incredibly valuable contribution to our country” and reminded Americans that fellow Americans “need to be treated with respect.”
Condoleezza Rice, Bush’s U.S. Secretary of State from 2005-2009, spoke after Jones via video; a condensed version of her remarks are below, with the full version available here:
…after those awful attacks of September 11th, President Bush did not give in to despair, nor did he allow his fellow citizens to do that either. Instead, he summoned the best in us, leading America to show its compassion in the President’s Emergency Fund for AIDS Relief that saved millions of lives. He led us to champion freedom from tyranny for all. And he reminded us that greatness starts at home, refusing to give in to the soft bigotry of low expectations and insisting on a high-quality education for all of America’s children.
George W. Bush showed what true leadership means and requires – being true to yourself and doing what you think is right, even if it’s not popular. It is not telling people what they want to hear or playing to their fears. It is telling them the truth and calling on them to see the world not just as it is, but as it should be.
True leadership means knowing how to empower the people who are trying to support you. Just as importantly, it means knowing how to make hard decisions, both as commander-in-chief and as decider-in-chief.
And ultimately, true leadership requires being, deep down, a good person. Character matters. And it is evidenced most clearly in how leaders treat the people around them. They assign worth, dignity and respect to every person, and they treat them accordingly.
It helps, too, to be humble and to have a good sense of humor, never to take yourself too seriously, even when you are the occupant of the Oval Office – maybe especially when you are the occupant of the Oval Office.
As I can attest from first-hand experience, George W. Bush embodies all of these qualities and more. Through his many years of distinguished service, he has proven himself to be a true leader and a great American. I am so grateful to have worked with him and to count him among my dearest friends…
When Bush spoke, he immediately noted he has already “had the greatest honor anybody could have” by being elected president of the United States.
His speech included numerous self-deprecating jokes, including referring to Winston Churchill and admitting “we are united by a common tongue, though I always had a little problem with the tongue part.”
Bush reiterated in his speech that “America is indispensable for the world” and that, as one of the world’s strongest and greatest countries, “the price of greatness is responsibilities.” He warned against isolation and emphasized that “people in the United States cannot escape world responsibility.”
He then spoke about the threat of the HIV and AIDS pandemic and discussed the role America plays in helping people around the globe (emphasis is mine):
My administration believed that of those to whom much is given, much is required. We believed that we’re all God’s children and every human life is precious. So in 2003, we decided that the greatest, wealthiest nation ever had a moral responsibility to intervene.
We recognized, too, that the United States had a national security imperative to act. Societies mired in disease breed hopelessness and despair, leaving those forgotten by wealthy nations susceptible to recruitment by radical extremists. …
As we saw on 9/11, how people live overseas can affect us here at home. When we confront suffering, when we save lives, we breathe hope into the devastated populations, strengthen and stabilize society and make our country and the world safer. …
I have come tonight to draw attention to this great and compassionate act. Some Americans may ask, is this really in our national interest? Why are we spending money abroad when we’ve got big problems here at home? Those are legitimate questions. Here is my answer: I believe that spending less than two-tenths of 1 percent of our federal budget to save millions of lives is the moral, the practical and in the national security interests of the United States.
These lines truly resonated with me.
I, too, believe life is precious and all life has intrinsic value, which is why I am pro-life. And, though I recognize this perspective may not be particularly popular, I believe not only does America has a moral obligation to help those whose own countries are unable to do so but also that, by doing so, America makes the world safer by stabilizing it, because it bolsters our own national security as a result of less volatility and extremism.
Bush also highlighted PEPFAR’s impressive and proven results that made a real difference in human lives:
Thirteen million people now live who would have died had it not been for the generosity of the American people. Across Africa, people who had been given up for dead are leading healthy and productive lives. Entire villages that had been abandoned are now thriving. Calling to mind the story of Jesus raising his friend from the dead, Africans have come up with a phrase to describe the transformation. They call it the Lazarus effect. The sad news is most Americans have no idea that their generosity has such an amazing effect.
That is amazing.
The numbers are similarly impressive; Bush revealed “half a million women have been screened; 32,000 have been treated for lesions; [and] 147,000 have been vaccinated against HPV, the virus most responsible for most cases of death.”
He concluded his speech by observing that “we’ve turned the tide against HIV/AIDS, but the gains are still fragile” and by revealing that the next goal of PEPFAR and the Bush Center is to reduce cervical cancer.
His full speech is available on the Atlantic Council website and is truly inspiring.
Bush’s speech, and the reasons behind his honoree selection, are yet another frustrating reminder Bush was often treated unfairly and unnecessarily harsh by his critics while in office. Though political disagreements are to be expected, the hatred heaped upon Bush’s character always seemed excessive, particularly since Bush actively sought to unite Americans and to encourage respect, as evidenced by his speech just days after 9/11 or by his line that “too often we judge other groups by their worst examples while judging ourselves by our worst intentions.”
Furthermore, Bush’s actions to help countless women rarely receive the acknowledgement they deserve. His administration’s efforts refute the claim that all Republicans are engaged in a “war on women.” There are members of the Republican Party who mistreat women, though this is certainly not limited to only the Republican Party, but it is undeniably frustrating to see a decent and honorable man such as Bush included included in such claims.
That Bush continued the work of PEPFAR long after he left office is remarkable, impressive, and praise-worthy. Hopefully those who unfairly portrayed him as evil realize that, too. Hyperpartisanship is only hurting America.
The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent those of any other individual or entity. Follow Sarah on Twitter: @sarahmquinlan.