Monday, January 16, 2006

ACCRA, Ghana — First lady Laura Bush yesterday said she was “irritated” by outside criticism of her husband’s anti-AIDS programs in Africa as being focused too heavily on abstinence and not enough on condoms.

Mrs. Bush, on a trip to West Africa to witness the inauguration of the continent’s first elected female president, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf of Liberia, also defended a National Security Agency program to eavesdrop on foreign al Qaeda suspects who communicate with Americans. She said the political furor in the U.S. would aid the terrorists.

But she was most annoyed by a question about AIDS and the U.S. policy to emphasize abstinence, which the reporter asking her said “some people have equated … with Christian moralism.”

“I’m always a little bit irritated when I hear the criticism of abstinence, because abstinence is absolutely 100 percent effective in eradicating a sexually transmitted disease,” Mrs. Bush said, before tying her answer in with one of the major themes of her trip, women’s rights in Africa.

“In a country or a part of the world where one in three people have a sexually transmitted deadly disease, you have to talk about abstinence, you really have to,” she said. “In many countries where girls feel obligated to comply with the wishes of men, girls need to know that abstinence is a choice.”

She also said AIDS can be curbed by the correct use of condoms and by being faithful to one’s partner.

Mrs. Bush also said her husband was upset last month when the New York Times revealed the existence of the National Security Agency eavesdropping program.

“He was worried that it would undermine our efforts by alerting terrorists to what our efforts are,” she said. “We’re constantly on the alert for an attack like what happened on September 11th.

“And I think the American people expect the United States government and the president to do what they can to make sure there’s not an attack by foreign terrorists,” she added.

Mrs. Bush is leading the U.S. delegation, which also includes her daughter Barbara and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, to today’s swearing-in of Mrs. Johnson-Sirleaf, a U.S.-educated economist and former World Bank official.

“We’re really, really excited to be at such a historic inauguration,” Mrs. Bush told reporters en route to Africa. “Because traditionally, women have been excluded in many African cultures — not all of them, but in many.”

The first lady said Mrs. Johnson-Sirleaf “serves as a very important role model for little girls on the continent, as well as around the world.”

The Bush administration hopes the inauguration will mark a turning point for Liberia, which was wracked by violence that killed about 250,000 people from 1989 to 2003. Since then, a transitional government has ruled the continent’s oldest republic, which was established in 1847 by freed American slaves.

Mrs. Bush said the new president can begin the healing process in earnest and pledged U.S. help to rebuild the war-ravaged nation.

“She ran on a platform of reconciliation and reconstruction, and it’s going to take the help of a lot of countries, including the United States, which has a special relationship with Liberia, for her and the people of Liberia to be able to do the reconstruction they need,” she said.

Assistant Secretary of State Jendayi Frazer, who is traveling with Mrs. Bush, said the U.S. is in the process of giving Liberia “$1 billion from 2004 to 2006.”

Mrs. Bush also will make stops in Ghana and Nigeria to discuss such topics as HIV/AIDS. Barbara, her daughter, recently worked with AIDS-stricken children in a South African hospital.

On the U.S. political front, Mrs. Bush also brushed off suggestions that Vice President Dick Cheney’s health problems would prevent him from serving out his term. Mr. Cheney recently was hospitalized for shortness of breath, caused by a medication he was taking for a foot ailment.

“Vice President Cheney’s in great health, and he’s doing great,” she said. “I’m sure the president would not like for him to step down, obviously.

“The vice president has been an excellent vice president,” she added. “He’s solid as a rock.”

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