By Tom Still

MADISON – A few years back, on a visit to the Mount Kilimanjaro region in Tanzania, I saw the intellectual beginnings of Tommy Thompson’s now-ended run for the presidency. He was in Arusha as chairman of a global conference on health care, doing his best to translate the might of the United States into policies that could work for poor people in Africa and beyond.

That was where I first heard Thompson – then the secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services – use the phrase “medical diplomacy” to describe what he was trying to accomplish. Thompson, who had witnessed the human costs of war in Iraq, Afghanistan and Africa, defined medical diplomacy as the knitting of health policy and foreign policy to improve the lives of vulnerable populations while serving the best interests of the United States.

“I truly believe medical diplomacy is one of the best, most exciting things we can do as a nation,” Thompson said. “Imagine being able to give people hope and a chance to be healthy. It’s a motivating factor for all of, whether we live in Afghanistan, Africa or America. What better way to project the power of the United States? What better way to knock down the hatred, the barriers of ethnic and religious groups that are afraid of America, and hate America, than to offer good medical policy and good health to these countries?”

Had it been Theodore Roosevelt rather than Tommy Thompson making the pitch, perhaps the memorable catch-phase would have been “speak softly and carry a big medical bag.” But Tommy was no Teddy, at least in this campaign, and his ideas may have been died in the cornfields of Iowa.

Or have they? Most, if not all, of the candidates for president are eager to debate America’s role in an ever-changing world. The war in Iraq divides them in many ways, but not the least of which is the notion that the United States should fully disengage in those places where recent American policies have proven unpopular or counter-productive.

When Thompson talked about Iraq or Afghanistan, he dwelled on the unseen successes – rebuilding hospitals and clinics neglected or even destroyed by the likes of Saddam Hussein and the Taliban. He usually made the point that if not for the intervention of the United States, thousands, if not millions, of people would have been doomed to unhealthy lives.

Of course, there’s nothing worse for the health of a child or a mother than a suicide bomber in Baghdad. Those regular reminders of Iraq’s internal religious war demonstrate that in order for “medical diplomacy” to work, there first must be diplomacy – and political leaders aspire to a peaceful ending.
But is disengagement the right path? For reasons ranging from America’s economic interests to its duty as a super-power to work for a better world, the answer is no. Finding the right balance – somewhere between invasions with no exit strategy and an open checkbook – is the proper course.

That brings me back to Tanzania, a place with all the extremes – beauty and squalor, wealth and poverty – that normally come to mind when Americans think of Africa. Fortunately for that nation, an American with all the qualifications to be a “medical diplomat” is on the way.

Former Wisconsin congressman Mark Green, who lost the 2006 race for governor to incumbent Jim Doyle, has been confirmed as the U.S. ambassador to Tanzania. Green and his wife, Sue, both lived in neighboring Kenya in the late 1980s, teaching in a small village where the ravages of typhoid, dysentery and worse took their toll. Green’s father was a physician born in South Africa. While in Congress, Green was a member of the House International Relations Committee and paid close attention to issues affecting Africa, including health care.

The fact that Green’s nomination was held up for partisan reasons suggests the nation has a way to go before concepts like “medical diplomacy” become household words. But say what you will about Thompson’s quixotic campaign for president, but he was right about one thing: America can and must use its power wisely to influence the world.

Still is president of the Wisconsin Technology Council. He is the former associate editor of the Wisconsin State Journal in Madison.