Bush Heads to Africa, Scene of Successes on Health Policy

President Bush and Laura Bush leave the White House for a six-day trip to Africa, with stops in Benin, Tanzania, Rwanda, Ghana and Liberia.
President Bush and Laura Bush leave the White House for a six-day trip to Africa, with stops in Benin, Tanzania, Rwanda, Ghana and Liberia. (By Manuel Balce Ceneta -- Associated Press)
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By Peter Baker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, February 16, 2008

For a president heading into his final months in office, Africa may seem an unlikely place for a victory lap. Yet when President Bush left yesterday for a six-day trip to the continent, he embarked on a mission to highlight his efforts to fight AIDS and malaria in the poorest corners of the world and effectively remind his own country that his presidency has been about more than just the war in Iraq.

With the campaign to succeed him racing ahead, Bush seems increasingly aware of his dwindling time left and eager to define his legacy. Recent speeches have offered valedictory recitations of achievements. In interviews and offhand remarks, he increasingly uses the past tense. He cooperated with a recent documentary summing up his presidency and mused with visitors recently about moving to Dallas after his time in office.

Bush often insists he will "sprint to the finish," a phrase that has become a virtual mantra in the White House. But presidents in their waning months typically think about how to consolidate successes, mitigate failures and frame history's verdict. And for a president who has spent his second term dogged by a war that won't end and more hated than loved in opinion polls, the struggle to shape his reputation appears all the more daunting.

The Africa trip provides a rare opportunity to showcase a part of his record that draws wide praise from across the ideological spectrum. By all accounts, Bush has done more to combat the AIDS pandemic that has devastated Africa than any other president, and even his harshest critics usually credit him for paying attention to a region often neglected by Washington. Much of the world has soured on the United States, but surveys by the Pew Global Attitudes Project show that Africa is one place where it is held in high regard.

Bush's successes in fighting AIDS and malaria in Africa are not as well known at home, and the administration has teamed up with Warner Bros. to create a 2 1/2 -minute movie trailer to play in theaters starting this summer, showing anti-HIV programs in three countries with Bush's voice as off-screen narration. Warner Bros. is also producing a 15-minute documentary on the AIDS program.

"It seems to me that the focus of this trip is legacy, legacy, legacy," said J. Anthony Holmes, a longtime U.S. diplomat who served in Africa and is now a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. "They really want to highlight and enshrine what the president has accomplished. And you know, as well, to get some political points."

Many liberals who disagree with Bush on other issues said he has reason to highlight his Africa record. "There have really been several achievements he can be proud of," said Rep. Donald M. Payne (D-N.J.), chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus. "This is a legacy. It's real, and it's recognized." And yet, because of the Iraq war, Payne noted, "it will be overshadowed at the end of the day."

Kenneth M. Duberstein, who was White House chief of staff in President Ronald Reagan's final year, said Bush's trip tries to build on seven years and change the image of the administration at home and abroad. "It is not a victory lap, but it is 'How many more pictures can I put on the wall?' as he travels around," Duberstein said.

White House officials reject the notion that the trip is about legacy, but they do characterize it as an attempt to focus attention on what Bush has done in Africa. "The trip will highlight how the United States has partnered closely with the people of Africa to address the challenges of disease, poverty and security and how, together, we've really made remarkable progress," said national security adviser Stephen J. Hadley.

What it will not highlight as much are the burgeoning conflicts plaguing the continent, such as the recent post-election strife in Kenya, the rebel incursion into Chad, renewed violence in Darfur and instability in Somalia. Bush has announced that he will send Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to Kenya to help mediate. But his itinerary -- with stops in Benin, Tanzania, Rwanda, Ghana and Liberia -- is built around his efforts to fight poverty and disease.

"They deserve credit for it; it's a great thing," said Gayle Smith, a former Africa adviser to President Bill Clinton and now a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress. "But it's what the trip's not doing given everything that's going on in Africa that's striking."

Bush overcame resistance within his own White House in his first term to launch a five-year, $15 billion war on HIV in Africa and elsewhere known as the President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, or PEPFAR. About 1.3 million people in Africa have received life-saving anti-retroviral medication as part of what experts call the largest international health initiative dedicated to one disease in history.

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