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Bush Defensive as Aid Effort Lumbers Into Action

by Jim Lobe

Largest Relief Operation In World History Underway In Asia

(IPS) WASHINGTON -- With the South Asian death toll from Sunday's tsunamis well beyond the 100,000 mark and climbing, the administration of U.S. President George W Bush is defending itself against charges that its aid commitments so far have been largely too little, too grudging and too late.

Several major U.S. newspapers complained that Bush had not only failed to take advantage of an opportunity to show key Asian countries and the world in general a more compassionate face than the one on display as commander-in-chief of his 'war on terror,' but that he had also embarrassed the nation by taking more than three days to personally express his concern.

'As the Bush administration is wont to say, actions speak louder than words, and American actions in recent days have painted the United States as a rich, self-absorbed, uncaring nation that had to be shamed into anything approaching appropriate concern about this catastrophe," wrote the editors of the 'Minneapolis Star Tribune' on Thursday.

"The Bush administration's handling of this crisis has been inept beyond belief," added the newspaper, which called on Washington to immediately pledge one billion dollars to relief and recovery efforts.

Pointing out that the $35 million pledged by Bush to the relief effort thus far is roughly what the Republican Party plans to spend on the president's inaugural festivities next month, the 'New York Times' described the contribution as a 'miserly drop in the bucket,' and declared itself in full agreement with Monday's critique by the United Nations' emergency coordinator, Jan Egeland, who called overall aid efforts by wealthy western nations 'stingy.'

Although those remarks were not specifically directed at Washington's aid record, they clearly had the desired effect, as Washington quickly added $20 million to the 15 million it had pledged Monday, and U.S. officials, full of indignation that anyone would accuse the United States of stinginess, breathlessly announced that Bush would emerge from his ranch home in Crawford, Texas to make a personal statement about the catastrophe Wednesday.

'These past few days have brought loss and grief to the world that is beyond our comprehension. Together, the world will cope with their loss. We will prevail over this destruction,' the president dutifully stated, insisting at the same time that it was his own decision to interrupt his holiday to speak about what happened.

'I felt like it was important to talk about what is going to be one of the major natural disasters in world history. And it's important for the world to know that our government is focused and will continue to respond to help those who suffer.'

Bush stressed that the $35 million was 'only a beginning' and did not include the costs of deploying half a dozen warships, including the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln, carrying about 20,000 sailors and Marines from Hong Kong to Indonesia, which, along with Sri Lanka, was hardest hit by the tsunamis. Washington earlier this week also set up a hub at Thailand's Udorn air base to ferry relief supplies into the affected areas.

But the president's own pique at Egeland came through loud and clear, if quite defensively, when he called the Norwegian's statement 'very misguided and ill-informed.' Bush went on to insist Washington had 'provided $2.4 billion in food, in cash, in humanitarian relief to cover disasters last year."

"That's 2.4 billion dollars,' he repeated. 'That's 40 percent of all the relief given in the world last year.'

Bush also threw in a kicker, aimed apparently directly at Egeland, whose official post as head of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) gives him responsibility for mobilizing and coordinating international emergency assistance, by announcing that his administration would form a core group -- including also Japan, India and Australia -- to coordinate relief efforts throughout the Indian Ocean region.

While U.S. officials insisted that creation of the new group, which would, they stressed, be open to membership by others, amounted to a simple recognition of their more extensive military infrastructure and geographical proximity, others suggested it was yet the latest example of Washington's efforts to forge 'coalitions of the willing' in order to bypass or undermine existing multilateral structures.

"By relying on what are widely viewed as its 'deputies' in the region as the basis for shaping the overall response to this tragedy ... the U.S. has earned no new friends," said John Gershman, an Asia specialist who also directs the joint 'Foreign Policy in Focus' project of the Washington-based Institute for Policy Studies and the International Relations Center in New Mexico.

Indeed, despite the promise of 'more to come,' Washington's contribution to date, as pointed out by the Times and Star Tribune among others, has already been dwarfed by other donors in per capita terms and as a percentage of gross domestic product (GDP).

The largest single donor to date, Spain, has pledged $68 million, almost twice what Washington has committed, while Australia, with a population and economy roughly one-fifteenth the size of the United States, has already pledged $27 million to relief operations.

Washington's contribution to date is not only far below the 40 percent share that Bush claimed his government gave to emergency operations in 2003; it is not even close to the 25-33 percent share that Washington has historically devoted to international disasters.

'We spend 35 million dollars before breakfast every day in Iraq,' noted Democratic Senator Patrick Leahy on Wednesday in what actually was only a very small exaggeration. U.S. operations in Iraq and Afghanistan are currently running at about six billion dollars a month, or about $35 million every six hours.

That comparison was not lost on many analysts, who noted that Indonesia, the world's most populous Muslim nation and the country hardest hit by the tsunamis, had long been a recruitment target for al-Qaeda.

Bush's insistence on continuing his holiday for three and a half days before his public appearance marked the loss of 'an important opportunity to reach out to the Muslims of Indonesia,' wrote University of Michigan professor and Middle East specialist Juan Cole on his much-read web (Internet) log, 'Informed Comment.'

'Indeed, the worst hit area of Indonesia is Aceh, the center of a Muslim separatist movement, and a gesture to Aceh from the U.S. at this moment might have meant a lot in U.S.-Muslim public relations,' Cole wrote. 'As it is, the president of the United States could think of nothing better to do than announce a paltry pledge. The rest of the world treated the U.S. much better than this after (the terrorist attacks of) September 11.'

Gershman echoed that critique. 'The slowness and stinginess of the Bush administration's response does not play well in Asia, a region where it has demanded active support for its self-declared global 'war on terrorism,' he told IPS. 'Humanitarian imperatives aside, the administration's stance displays an amazing absence of enlightened self-interest."

"Why should countries wish to deploy scarce political and economic resources in collaborative efforts to address U.S. security interests when the Bush administration is unwilling to reciprocate in times of dire necessity? ... The hollowness of the Bush administration's claims of partnership and cooperation would be laughable if the circumstances were not so tragic,' he added.

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Albion Monitor December 30, 2004 (

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