Why the U.S. Is Finally Taking the AIDS Pandemic Seriously

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America's gradual progress against AIDS will go down as one of the great scientific struggles of the late 20th century. But while the U.S. and other Western nations have made great strides in containing the virus at home, over the past two decades AIDS has grown into a pandemic across the developing world. The disease has spread to such a degree that, according to U.S. and U.N. security experts, AIDS now poses a major threat to global stability. According to a report in Sunday's Washington Post, the Clinton administration has recently made combating AIDS in developing countries a top federal priority, and, for the first time, has placed the battle against a disease under the aegis of the National Security Council. Treating AIDS as a security threat rather than a human rights issue means more money and resources — the federal budget for battling AIDS abroad has flatlined at about $125 million over the past seven years; the administration wants to double that amount.

Last year a team of national intelligence experts assembled a report that projected the future global ramifications of the epidemic if it continues to go unchecked in the developing world. Based on 75 factors that have historically tended to destabilize governments, the panel predicted that the AIDS death toll and the economic costs of battling the disease could cause the failure of redevelopment efforts and democratic experiments throughout the Third World. The basic problems are shortened life expectancy (which has been nearly halved in some African nations) and the creation of a disenfranchised poor population with troves of orphans and broken families. AIDS, the report predicts, will tear through sub-Saharan Africa over the next decade and then through the nations of the former Soviet Union and Southeast Asia, devastating masses and exposing them to exploitation and revolutionary forces. Human rights groups estimate that a quarter of sub-Saharan Africa is already infected.

The arguments for making this a security priority seem sound enough. The question that comes to mind, however, is the administration's timing. Administration officials say they've known all along that AIDS could lead to social unrest in the developing world. Yet they've waited until this year to declare this a security problem, and it took them nearly three months to make the NSC's involvement publicly known. It's certainly ripe fodder for conspiracy theorists that the story detailing the administration's aggressive plan to attack AIDS appeared on the front page of Washington's paper of record on the same day that 300,000 gay activists were expected to descend on the nation's capital for their Millennium March. In these final months of the Clinton administration the President has been scurrying to the left to shore up his legacy on liberal causes. There should be little doubt that the administration wants to be remembered for having done something to battle the plague of the latter half of the 20th century.