U.S. RESPONDS TO DISASTER

A mountain of good will without strings

by Ralph Cossa

HONOLULU — Now that a month has passed since the tragic earthquake and tsunami that wrecked widespread devastation across South and Southeast Asia, it is time to separate fact from fiction regarding the timeliness, level and intention of U.S. relief efforts.

Of late, I have been frequently asked the following question: “Can the U.S. relief effort, despite its slow and too modest start, somehow improve America’s image in Asia in general and among Muslims in particular?” The question itself incorporates many fictions.

First is the question of whether Washington’s response was timely. It was three days after the tragedy before President George W. Bush held a press conference from Crawford, Texas, to personally express his nation’s profound sense of sadness over the tragedy and to pledge American support. But this does not mean that nothing was being done before that.

American ambassadors in the stricken countries immediately had offered assistance and set about assessing the damage. U.S. ships were given orders to begin deploying to the region within a day of the tragedy — well before the extent of devastation became clear or any government had officially requested their assistance — despite the fact that U.S. military forces are severely overextended and many had seen recent duty in Iraq. (They came to the rescue eagerly despite, in some cases, having an R&R holiday curtailed.)

Within two weeks of the tragedy, more than 14,000 American troops were on the scene, along with 25 ships (including a carrier battle group, a Marine amphibious group, the hospital ship USNS Mercy) and some 90 aircraft (including more than 50 vitally needed helicopters).

This rapid, sustained response, which is costing the Defense Department over $5 million dollars a day, is unprecedented. Unfortunately, but all too predictably, the fact that Bush waited until Dec. 29 to personally express America’s grief and support — after countless other officials had already backed up their words with extensive relief actions — seemed somehow more important to the critics than the immediate, continuing, sustained effort of the U.S. government and by Americans in general to help those most in need.

Was the initial announced donation too modest? Yes, if you base it on what we know now. But the initial pledge of $15 million, quickly increased to $35 million, was made when news reports were referring to relatively fewer casualties. (The initial report in the Honolulu press said “at least 700 people” were killed by the tsunami. A week later we were still talking about “as many as 50,000 casualties.”) The number now exceeds 280,000; the real figure will likely never be known.

As the extent of the tragedy became more clear, U.S. aid continued to rise. The subsequent U.S. government pledge of $350 million in relief assistance, while extremely generous, tells only part of the story. It does not include the Pentagon’s $5 million a day in expenses (not to mention manpower and equipment costs); nor does it include U.S. private and corporate contributions that have already exceeded the $350 million mark and are expected to reach $700 million, thanks to the efforts of an administration-initiated private charity drive spearheaded by former U.S. Presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton.

Washington, and Tokyo, have also offered to help in developing a regional tsunami-warning system to avoid or at least minimize the impact of future tragedies.

As U.S. troops landed in Indonesia (and elsewhere) to deliver much-needed aid, rumors immediately began spreading that the intention of the U.S. was to use the relief effort to somehow gain a foothold there under the pretext of providing aid. But an interesting thing happened when the Indonesian government announced a date (March 26) by which all foreign troops should leave. Washington immediately agreed while everyone else said “stay!”

Jakarta subsequently redefined the deadline as a “benchmark” to improve its own efforts so that it would carry the “large part of the [relief] burden.”

Will the U.S. relief effort help Washington’s image in Asia and in the Muslim world? Hopefully it will, although those who are quick to find fault with anything that Washington does will no doubt continue to stress the negatives.

The broader point should not be missed: Americans responded with open hearts and with open wallets — at the governmental, corporate, nongovernment organization (NGO), and individual level — not because it was demanded or would somehow buy future good will, but because that’s what Americans do when tragedy strikes, at home or abroad.

The primary motive was, and remains, humanitarian, not public relations. To reinforce this point, one need only return to the scene of the devastation one month later. Most of the media crews are gone, as the news story has largely run its course. Yet American troops and NGOs are still on the scene.

Over 11,000 troops remain committed to relief efforts, including some 2,600 on the ground, 15 ships and 60-plus aircraft (over $20 billion worth of military assets), delivering a staggering 2.72 million kilograms of relief supplies (and almost 9 million kilograms of supplies and equipment) to stricken areas.

“Too little, too late”? — I don’t think so!