WASHINGTON – President Bush was the center of attention and outpouring of accolades Monday as Dr. Rick Warren awarded him the first "International Medal of PEACE" on the 20th anniversary of World AIDS Day for his unprecedented contribution to the fight against the deadly disease.
"No man in history, no world leader, has ever done more for global health than President George W. Bush," declared Warren at the Saddleback Church Civil Forum on Global Health, held at the Newseum in the nation's capital.
The award is given on behalf of the Global Peace Coalition - a network of churches, businesses and individuals working together to solve humanitarian issues - to individuals that exemplify outstanding contribution towards alleviating the five global giants recognized by the Coalition: pandemic diseases, extreme poverty, illiteracy, self-centered leadership and spiritual emptiness.
Megachurch pastor and innovative thinker Warren praised President Bush and his administration for not only creating the President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR), but also following through to see $18.8 billion provided to combat HIV/AIDS – mainly in Africa – since 2003.
Within five years, the initiative has seen from 50,000 people in all of sub-Saharan Africa to over 2.1 million people living with HIV/AIDS receiving anti-retroviral treatment.
PEPFAR was also lauded for entrusting local African leaders with the decision-making and strategies process even though the money came from the United States.
"The innovation of trusting local leaders at the local level instead of saying we over here are going to tell you what to do," Warren said approvingly, praising the system for not being paternalistic. "You let them determine the strategies in each country and that is how you got to 2 million [people on anti-retroviral treatment]."
The motivation to achieve the ambitious PEPFAR goal came from the belief that to whom much is given, much is required, Bush explained.
He said he also wanted to be remembered as the "guy who showed up to solve problems."
"When you have someone that says there is a pandemic that you can help and you do nothing about it, you have frankly disgraced the office," Bush said.
Close staff members, including Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and former speechwriter Michael Gerson, were also credited for motivating the president to support the initiative.
"I don't deserve an award. The people who make this policy work deserve the award," the president said.
But besides the satisfaction of knowing Americans helped those in need, the initiative is also good foreign policy, Bush added. It serves the U.S. national security interest to help other countries because the world is a battle of ideological conflicts where people who are hopeless are recruited to terrorist and militant groups.
"There is nothing more hopeless than being orphaned for example whose parents died of HIV/AIDS and wondering whether or not there is a future for them," Bush said. "So it's in our national security interest to deal with hopelessness where we can fight it."
The AIDS program, Bush explained, is part of a larger "freedom agenda" of the administration that includes freedom from tyranny, disease, hunger and deprivation.
"If you believe that we are all God's children and believe that there is God-given talent in every single person, one should not be surprised by a policy that elevates the individual, that focuses on the individual and doesn't focus on bureaucracies but tries to get help into the hands of individual people," he said.
At the end of the forum, videos were shown of world leaders and HIV/AIDS activists who offered praise to President Bush for battling AIDS.
Among the list was President-elect Barack Obama, who pledged to continue PEPFAR when he becomes head of state.
"I salute President Bush for his leadership in crafting a plan for AIDS relief in Africa and backing it up with funding dedicated to saving lives and preventing the spread of the disease," Obama said in taped remarks.
Others that complimented Bush, who steps down from office in January, included former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, President Paul Kagame of Rwanda, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, and rock star and activist Bono.
Warren ended the forum by stating that "a lot has been done but a lot still needs to be done." The pastor, who along with his wife, Kay, have been spearheading the church effort to tackle HIV/AIDS, reminded listeners that fighting the disease is not "just a nice thing" to do, but a "matter of life and death."
The HIV/AIDS pandemic has claimed more than 25 million lives, with an estimated 33 million people currently living with HIV worldwide.
In July, Bush approved the re-authorization of PEPFAR to expand it to up to $48 billion over the next five years.