TOPICS > Health

National Security Threat

May 2, 2000 at 12:00 AM EDT


JIM LEHRER: AIDS as a national security threat, and to Ray Suarez.

RAY SUAREZ: Over the past two decades, as the spread of the AIDS virus was recognized as a public health emergency in Europe and North America, its impact on the developing world has been far more catastrophic. Of the 33 million people with HIV Around the world, 95 percent are in developing countries, mostly Sub-Saharan Africa. Every day, 5,000 Africans are infected, primarily from heterosexual contact. In the West, the disease is spread mostly via drug use and homosexual contact. Statistically, the tragedy is most acute in Zimbabwe and Botswana, where one in four adults is HIV-positive.

MARTHA AINSWORTH, The World Bank: AIDS is taking a terrible toll on developing countries. In Zimbabwe, life expectancy is 22 years shorter then it would have been in the absence of the AIDS epidemic. In Tanzania, AIDS is increasing poverty. Children are being pulled out of school to cope with the deaths of adults in their families.

RAY SUAREZ: But health and demography may not be the only dimensions of the problem. The Clinton administration has designated AIDS as a threat to national security. It’s the first time an infectious disease has been added to a list that includes terrorism and weapons of mass destruction. The AIDS news broke on Sunday, the same day hundreds of thousands of gay rights supporters rallied in Washington. One senior Republican said the timing was not a coincidence.

SPOKESMAN: Do you think AIDS is a national security threat?

SEN. TRENT LOTT: I saw that in the Washington Post this morning. I mention that paper again, and I didn’t see it in other papers, and the answer is no, I don’t. I guess this is just the president trying to make an appeal to, you know, certain groups. But no, I don’t view that as a national security threat. Not to our national security interests, no.

RAY SUAREZ: That provoked this response from the White House.

JOE LOCKHART: To have this question put to him by a television interview, and to have him laugh at the AIDS problem as a national security issue… you know, I think this is a problem at home which we’ve addressed, this is a problem around the world that we have an interest in and we need to keep working on, and you can’t just laugh it off.

RAY SUAREZ: And joining us now is the president’s national security adviser, Samuel Berger. Welcome to the program.

SAMUEL BERGER: Good evening.

RAY SUAREZ: How is the suffering of people who have AIDS and other diseases in foreign countries a threat to the national security of the United States?

SAMUEL BERGER, National Security Adviser: The AIDS epidemic has reached such proportions… Some of the statistics that you cited earlier, 50 million people in the world now infected with HIV, in some countries, in Africa 20 percent infected with HIV. In 1998, 200,000 people in Africa died from war; 2.2 million died from AIDS. In some countries now we have 30 percent of the military, 40 percent of teachers who are suffering from HIV. So what you have is an epidemic now which is eating at the very civil society of nations, their potential for economic prosperity. If we had a famine that killed 2.2 million people last year in Africa, we would be very alarmed. President Bush sent troops to Somalia, a famine not nearly of that magnitude. If we don’t address this as an urgent problem, we’re going to have increasing instability, increasing conflict and an implosion of many of the countries in the developing world.

RAY SUAREZ: But I think you get near universal agreement that this is a public health crisis, a human tragedy of the first rank. But how does it reach across the Atlantic to the United States and threaten this country?

SAMUEL BERGER: Well, we understand, I think, as global worlds, global age, and a global economy that instability in other parts of the world which can lead to war and conflict can have a direct effect on the United States. And I think we have an obligation to act with others to try to both deal with the consequences and increase the degree of education and prevention to try to slow this down.

RAY SUAREZ: Does this bring on to the United States and our security apparatus some sort of obligation beyond one that the United States government may have already taken on to itself?

SAMUEL BERGER: No, but I do think it’s incumbent on us to lead here and to make other countries in the world more aware of this, to join with us. And let me give you a few examples. We now have raised this in the United Nations Security Council, the nations of the U.N. Security addressed this in January. When the president goes to Portugal in late May for the summit with the E.U., this will be one of the items on the agenda. When we go to the G-8 summit in Okinawa with the industrial countries, this will be one of the items on the agenda — not to the exclusion of other items but to get countries to join together, as we have done, to devote resources to first treating the consequences, and second to try to stop the spread of the — this epidemic.

RAY SUAREZ: Is this the first time something like this has ever been done to talk about disease, not only AIDS but tuberculosis, malaria and others in the same way that you at the National Security Council talk about weapons, about terrorism, about terrorist acts?

SAMUEL BERGER: For example, you know, we have been dealing with the international drug crisis as a foreign policy and national security issue for many years. It’s a question not only of dealing with the demand side of that problem here in the United States, but also trying to stop it from the source and interdict it between here and there. Now, obviously different kinds of issues require different kinds of crisis. We’re not suggesting here that this is something that calls for a military response. But it does call for a national response. It calls for us to lead with other nations. 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 question… In fact indeed their capacity to govern ultimately being called into question, a few ounces of prevention at this point will be I think well spent compared with what we could face in the future if we don’t deal with it.

RAY SUAREZ: As with government reports on other crisis abroad this one contains “best case” and “worst case” scenarios, epidemiological reports, health statistics. In a country, individual country let’s say like Zimbabwe, which is so heavily affected by this disease, how would it become unstable from within when it has a lot of its people sick?

SAMUEL BERGER: Well, the countries, for example, that have had enjoyed solid growth in Africa now are beginning to see that growth erode because its work force is not able anymore to function in the economy and the cost of the disease to the government is becoming overwhelming. What happens? Those countries begin to unravel. They are unstable. They’re more likely to engage in conflict with their neighbors. And before long, we have something, a situation which is really tumultuous. And so the most important thing we can do is first of all, work with other countries to try to apply collective resources; two, work with the leaders of these countries to try to change the dynamic. For example, in Uganda where President Musaveni has been a real leader here and has been out front in terms of talking about this problem, dealing with education, dealing with prevention, the rates have begun to go down. So there are things we can do about this. And we’ve also finally tried to stimulate our pharmaceutical companies to develop the kinds of vaccines for problems in the developing world where the money is not there to buy the drugs and, therefore, justify the research for vaccines on certain strains of AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria.

RAY SUAREZ: Do you expect to face skepticism on this? You heard Senator Lott before we began to talk.

SAMUEL BERGER: I think the facts speak for themselves. I think that the fact that 50 million people in the world now are effected by this epidemic; the facts that 2.2 million people last year died in Africa alone; the fact that this is now a growing problem in Asia, in India and elsewhere … India a country in South Asia with great potential and great promise but also in a very unstable area of the world, I think that as people look at the facts and as senators look at the facts you’ll realize that a national response together with other countries is appropriate.

RAY SUAREZ: Samuel Berger, thanks for being with us.

SAMUEL BERGER: You’re welcome.