Beyond Iraq: The First Lady, Back in Africa

By Michael A. Fletcher
Monday, June 25, 2007

If three words could sum up President Bush's foreign policy legacy, they would be: Iraq, Iraq, Iraq. But if first lady Laura Bush has her way, historians also will remember the president's determination to fight deadly diseases in Africa and other parts of the developing world.

This month, President Bush called on Congress to double to $30 billion over the next five years the funding for the President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, or PEPFAR. He has also pledged $1.2 billion in a five-year effort to cut in half the number of people killed by malaria, which claims more than 1 million lives a year, mostly of children.

Laura Bush will be highlighting those programs as she leaves today on her third visit to Africa. The five-day trip will take her to Senegal, Mozambique, Zambia and Mali. Although PEPFAR and other international aid programs are saving thousands of lives, the reality is that HIV's growth in Africa is outpacing treatment.

"It does seem like an insurmountable problem, but the fact is you can measure progress, because you can see how many people actually get treatment," the first lady said in an interview with CNN's Kiran Chetry. She added that mother-to-child transmission of the disease has been all but eradicated in the United States, success that can be duplicated elsewhere.

One of the big problems in battling AIDS, in Africa and beyond, is the stigma that still accompanies the disease, she said. "It's something we have to fight and something that we have to talk about," she told American Urban Radio's April Ryan.

Bush said she hopes her trip helps people understand that HIV is no longer tantamount to a death sentence. "If you go on anti-retrovirals, you can lead a healthy life," she said. The sojourn also should show U.S. taxpayers the president's support of pressing humanitarian causes, she added. "We want the American people to know, because it's their taxpayer money that's doing it."

That Turbulence? Immigration Talk.

One of President Bush's top domestic priorities is to revamp the nation's immigration laws. One of the biggest obstacles he faces in getting a bill he likes through Congress is Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.). That situation made for a little awkwardness as Sessions spent most of Thursday with Bush, flying round-trip to Alabama from Washington aboard Air Force One. The two toured a recently refurbished nuclear power plant in Athens before flying to Mobile for a fundraiser that grossed $900,000 for Sessions and Senate Republicans.

A reporter ran into Sessions early in the day and asked whether the president had changed his mind on immigration during the 100-minute flight. "Well, I will say that he's mentioned it," Sessions said, "but he isn't doing any real selling." But it was still early.

Later, at the fundraiser, Bush raised the issue. "He's a strong ally on a lot of fronts. We occasionally have our differences," he said of Sessions, prompting knowing laughter from the well-heeled crowd of 900. "I mean, take the immigration bill, for example. We both agree we've got a problem. And the fundamental question is how best to fix it."

Bush then took the pressure off -- for the moment, at least -- by recalling an old joke from a political buddy in Texas. "He said if we agreed 100 percent of the time, one of us wouldn't be necessary," Bush said. "Well, he's necessary in the United States Senate."

After Sessions returned to Andrews Air Force Base with Bush late Thursday, he was spotted walking toward his waiting aides, clutching a small white shopping bag stuffed with Air Force One keepsakes, including a box of M&M's and a picture of the presidential plane. Asked whether Bush had twisted his arm about the immigration plan, Sessions just smiled. "He's irrepressible," he said.

For Bush, No Shedding Sudan Holdings

As the movement to divest from companies that do business in Sudan has gained momentum, presidential candidates have joined in, promising to shed holdings. Sens. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.) and Barack Obama (D-Ill.), former senator John Edwards (D-N.C.) and former New York City mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani (R) have announced plans to sell off their Sudan-related investments. Major companies, including Fidelity and Berkshire Hathaway, have also sold holdings in firms that do business in the war-torn but oil-rich nation.

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