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The Magic of National Security

What does it take to make AIDS a threat to U.S. National Security?

August 14, 2000

What does it take to make AIDS a threat to U.S. National Security?

In a recent television interview, National Security Advisor Sandy Berger demonstrated that such misleading habits are hard to break. In the interview, Mr. Berger was asked to explain the Clinton Administration’s decision to declare the AIDS epidemic in Africa a threat to U.S. national security. While he gave his best effort trying to make the case, most experts and the public-at-large remained unconvinced — rightly so.

There is no doubt that AIDS is a human catastrophe of the first magnitude. But it is hard to see how it will have an impact on the security of the United States in the near to medium future.

The shameful thing is that in these times of fiscal abundance, one should expect the U.S. government to cough up funds for such important humanitarian purposes without having to rely on gimmicks such as throwing around the much-abused “national security” label.

To see Mr. Berger trying to square the circle on this issue is especially disheartening. After all, one would expect Mr. Berger — who’s official job title is that of National Security Adviser — to be able to tell a real threat from a humanitarian problem.

So why the gimmickry? Simple. Mr. Berger is following a two-pronged strategy: First, he wanted to win a domestic political argument so that Congress will earmark more funding to fight AIDS. And, second, he wanted to demonstrate to the rest of the world that the United States is taking the leadership on this important issue.

How hard it is to shake money loose from the U.S. Congress also recently became evident on another issue — debt forgiveness. The Chairman of the House International Relations Committee, Rep. Benjamin Gilman (R-NY), argued that the U.S. government should support training for foreign military officers rather than funding the Cologne debt relief initiative.

In the interview, Mr. Berger mentioned how the United States is responding to calls from the rest of the world to take the lead in the fight against AIDS. What more should U.S. policy do? Teachers, too, are central to his view of the world. In the same breath, more surprisingly, he includes the military as a fundament of society.

“When you have large parts of the developing world whose capacity to grow, whose capacity to have militaries that can maintain stability, whose capacity to teach their children is really being called into questions, a few ounces of prevention at this point will be well spent,” he said. No wonder Mr. Berger seemed alarmed about the fact that in some countries, 30% of soldiers are infected with HIV.

The National Security Adviser's strategy is unmistakable. If AIDS in developing countries is a threat to the United States, that threat can be contained by efforts to ensure that the pillars of society — including the military, of course — remain intact. To extrapolate, AIDS is not the real threat, merely the cause of the social unrest that might ultimately affect the United States. And the cure for social unrest is a strong, effective army.

Asked whether the National Security Council had ever declared war on a disease before, Mr. Berger blustered. “Obviously different kinds of issues require different kinds of crisis.” That is the actual phrase used, but it's possible he meant it the other way around.

But then again, at least in this instance, the money that is being sought to counter the purported national security threat will actually go toward a worthy cause — instead of lining the pockets of powerful interest groups, as is too often the case when U.S. politicians start huffing about “national security.”