Gerson does bite his thumb at Fred Thompson, who, we are told, is not a compassionate but a 'callous conservative':
At a campaign stop attended by a CBS reporter in Lady's Island, S.C., Thompson was asked if he, "as a Christian, as a conservative," supported President Bush's global AIDS initiative. "Christ didn't tell us to go to the government and pass a bill to get some of these social problems dealt with. He told us to do it," Thompson responded. "The government has its role, but we need to keep firmly in mind the role of the government, and the role of us as individuals and as Christians on the other."
Thompson went on: "I'm not going to go around the state and the country with regards to a serious problem and say that I'm going to prioritize that. With people dying of cancer, and heart disease, and children dying of leukemia still, I got to tell you -- we've got a lot of problems here. . . . " Indeed, there are a lot of problems here -- mainly of Thompson's own making.
Brrr! Feel the miserliness. Gerson advances a nice, hip argument that fighting AIDS is important because terrorists prey on dysfunctional societies -- being sure to note that what they really prey on is 'hopelessness' -- and I suppose some day we're going to hear about the first suicide bomber to have AIDS, and then the cluck factory will shift into hyperdrive. Gerson would seem to have us think that a Christian is defective unless he or she supports the use of every tool at the federal government's disposal to minimize the risk of new terrorists being created. But this is a weak argument, and Gerson seems to know it. Indeed it smells rather like a red herring:
One wonders, in [Thompson's] view, if responding to the 2004 tsunami should also have been a private responsibility. Religious groups are essential to fighting AIDS, but they cannot act on a sufficient scale.
It's left unclear what a sufficient scale is and why. I suspect that the Govmint represents the sufficient scale because the United States, by definition, can't muster a bigger scale than that. By displaying to ourselves that we've maxed out the level of political authority and power in AIDS aid, we minimize our guilt, which is a nice effect (I do mean this seriously) but inadequate to the purposes of justifying a foreign policy.
Thompson's point is straightforward enough: a foreign policy cannot be, and should not be, a simple declaration and prosecution of open war on suffering. Nor is it "picking on" people, as Gerson pretends, to not make their suffering a priority. It might be any number of things -- including a stupid idea -- but deprivileging is not bullying, and if we've convinced ourselves otherwise, our information trains really are jammed.
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.
Notice that one of the results of this more 'callous' reasoning is that we needn't justify federal action in terms of embiggening. Rather than saying "the Govmint is the biggest hammer we've got, and we'll feel morally inadequate unless we use the biggest hammer we've got to pound our sense of sin away!", we can say "international order is one of the federal government's most important and proper concerns; therefore AIDS aid should continue apace." This is a great practical and logical improvement in my book.
And indeed that's how AIDS aid got started in the first place, way back in Clintonian times, when it was billed as the intelligent and wise response to a developing national-security crisis. Now, 'national security' is the wrong phrase -- 'international peace and security' is the one to use -- but there you go. I wonder what Gerson would have to say about the Clinton administration's security approach to AIDS aid. Probably that long ago these primitives developed an inkling of True Moral Courage that only the Enlightened Ones have today conceived in full.