This isn’t a popular thing to say, says Nicholas Kristof in The New York Times, but George W Bush was a great president. Yes, he is responsible for hundreds of thousands of lives lost in Iraq. But he is also the author of the “single best policy of any president” since the 1950s: the mammoth government programme to fight HIV and Aids around the world. PEPFAR – the President’s Emergency Plan for Aids Relief – turned the tide of the epidemic and has saved 25 million lives so far. That’s more than all the Jews killed in the Holocaust; all the victims of the genocides in Armenia, Rwanda, Cambodia, Bosnia and Myanmar; all the confirmed Covid deaths worldwide; every American soldier who has died in war since 1776; and every person killed by a gun or a car in America in the past half century, “combined”.
It’s important to point out that Bush wasn’t under any pressure to start PEPFAR, nor did it benefit him politically. Twenty years on, plenty of Americans have never even heard of it. That’s what makes it so “heroic”, and why it’s vital that we don’t let the legacy of Iraq overshadow the “leading humanitarian initiative of our lifetime”. Failure to credit Bush for PEPFAR “disincentivises other presidents from starting grand programmes”, when it should be a model for new historic interventions. What liberals who say we mustn’t “praise a war criminal” don’t understand is that “we inhabit a dissonant world”. We’d get a lot further by recognising that, and abandoning “oversimplified, single-arc narratives”.