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David Cook

Michael Gerson was on the side of the road when I called. The Washington Post columnist, driving back from a speaking engagement at the College of William and Mary, had a flat tire, which seemed apt: I was calling to talk about the future of American foreign policy, which also seems deflated.

After all, to make America great again, shouldn't we also care about the greatness of other countries?

"That's very much under question right now, within the Republican Party particularly, what our global role should be," Gerson said.

Democracy is receding around the world, and here, as well. A nominated Trump will bring retrenched and retracted politics into the prime time; he is a man of walls — border walls, breaking alliances, rethinking NATO, a retraction into a new isolationism.

Yet for Gerson, there is no great America without a great world.

"It's not a zero-sum game. We're safer when other parts of the world are more hopeful," he said.

Gerson was within the inner circle during President George W. Bush's years in the White House, and helped craft the politics of compassionate conservatism. Two of his proudest contributions? The President's Malaria Initiative and the President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief.

Today, in much of Africa, those policies have been transformative.

- The childhood mortality rate.

"Over the last huge decade, we have halved childhood mortality and then halved it again," Gerson said.

This happens through basic intervention: vaccinations, malaria bed nets, increased childhood nutrition.

- AIDS treatment.

In 2000, barely 700,000 Africans had access to HIV/AIDS medicine.

Now, more than 15 million do.

 The President's Malaria Initiative.

"An estimated 6 million lives [saved] since 2005," Gerson said.

That's the equivalent of a reverse genocide; millions and millions of lives saved through dynamic and effective humanitarian policy authored, primarily, by an American president.

What has happened to our national self where we no longer crave, demand and celebrate such policy?

"Trump blames undocumented workers, blames the Mexican government, blames China for American's economic ills. You find that same spirit in Bernie Sanders and the 1 percent or finance industry or other villains," Gerson said. "There are philosophies and approaches that are organized to assign blame. And a lot of our problem just won't be solved that way."

Earlier this year, Congress passed the Electrify Africa Act of 2016. Sponsored by U.S. Sen. Bob Corker, the act requires the president to craft policy that will help deliver electricity throughout sub-Saharan Africa in years to come.

While the plan has been criticized by some as a giveaway to fossil-fuel corporations, others see it as an opportunity for green growth in Africa.

"Renewable energy projects in sub-Saharan Africa are arguably the biggest winners under the new law," write Ikenna Emehelu and Rahwa Gebretnnsaie, two attorneys for the international Chadbourne and Parke law firm.

Some 70 percent of sub-Saharan Africans lack access to electricity, and still cook and heat through respiratory-disease-causing open fires, while 90 million children there attend schools without electricity access, according to, an advocacy group that seeks to end extreme poverty in Africa and a main driver behind the Electrify Africa Act.

"I've been a member for years," said Laney Carter.

Carter, a Chattanoogan, grew up traveling and living in Africa with her parents, who were, and still are, medical missionaries. Not long ago Carter, a mother of two who started Chattanooga's first ONE chapter, joined ONE activists from all 50 states to lobby Congress about the importance of ending extreme poverty.

"Good things can still happen in our legislative system when the right people pay attention," Gerson said.

Which can translate to a safer and more hopeful world.

"Republicans and others need to make the case aggressively that America is safer and more prosperous when it is engaged in positive ways in the world," he said.

* * *

Each summer, the local Southeast Conservation Corps takes a group of Chattanooga teenagers into the woods for amazing work: camping, trail maintenance, mentoring, team-building.

And it's paid.

"We have 18 job openings for local teens," director Brenna Kelly said.

The Youth Conservation Crew begins its season June 5.

"With high youth unemployment and all of the gang activity, there are surely 18 youth in Chattanooga that are looking for great mentorship, a job and desire to commit to a season of conservation work," she said.

For more information or to apply, call 423-664-2344 or visit

David Cook writes a Sunday column and can be reached at or 423-757-6329.