AIDS, Africa, and the National Interest

It seems that nobody much cares for Michael Gerson's attack on Fred Thompson for questioning the wisdom of spending U.S. dollars fighting AIDS in Africa. I'm actually with Gerson, roughly speaking, on the substance of the issue, and I'd associate myself with these James Poulos remarks on the subject:

In this case, I have no problem with AIDS aid. I think standing idly by while one of the most damaging diseases in human history grows freely is not a very good idea on its face. I don't like suffering, and I do like charity, but I do not think that the purpose of foreign policy ought to be explained in terms of charitably fighting suffering. This clouds clear thinking, erodes sovereignty, and makes prudent prioritizing needlessly difficult. If their cause is as important as they say, AIDS activists should be able to make the 'hard case' for aid in these terms, and I think they can. Because the AIDS epidemic in Africa also happens to cloud clear thinking, erode sovereignty, and impede prudent prioritizing. Suffering is not a foreign policy problem; order is. And some things that cause significant suffering really do a number on order. An AIDS pandemic is one of those things.

I might even go further than this, though, and suggest that even when these sort of efforts turn out to be ineffective at fostering the sort of order we ought to be concerned with, their effectivness as public diplomacy shouldn't be underestimated. Foreign aid isn't exactly cheap, but compared to some of our other foreign ventures it's a relatively inexpensive way to burnish America's image in the world's more unstable regions, and it's impact on public opinion tends to be considerably larger than all of Karen Hughes's junkets put together.

The problem with Gerson's column, of course, is that it barely attempts to make the case for AIDS aid on anything resembling strategic grounds (apart from a vague and unpersuasive reference to how "radicals and terrorists" will thrive in Africa if we let the continent down), preferring instead to bash Thompson over the head for being too "callous" to understand, as Gerson does, how Jesus's message is supposed to be applied to foreign policy.