Wednesday, December 29, 2004

A Genuine P.R. Moment, Missed

Juan Cole has an excellent post today about how the Bush administration, in its lackluster response to the record-breaking, history-altering calamity in Southeast Asia, has been ignoring a huge opportunity to improve relations with the Muslim world. Cole references an article in Wednesday's Washington Post, written by John Harris and Robin Wright, in which the authors note that Bush's muted response has been noticed and commented on by the United Nations humanitarian chief, international aid organizations, and foreign policy experts, as well as the U.S. media.

In contrast to leaders like Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder of Germany, who ended his vacation early and returned to his office immediately after the news of the catastrophe became known, Pres. Bush has stayed on his ranch, secluded and incommunicado, and did not even make a public statement about the tragedy until late in the day yesterday. The White House Press Office released a document saying that the President "sent his condolences" to the people of Southeast Asia, but Bush himself did not say anything until lateTuesday afternoon (the earthquake and tsunamis happened on Sunday).

The amount of aid initially offered was appallingly low, as well. At a time when the U.S. is spending hundreds of billions of dollars on Iraq, the Bush administration pledged $15 million, and then raised it by $20 million in response to criticism.

Aside from the insensitivity from a human point of view, the failure to offer tangible aid proportionate to the need and to the wealth of the United States is inexplicable in light of the fact that the country hardest hit by the tsunamis -- Indonesia -- is also the locus of a strong and growing Muslim separatist movement. What better way to disarm anti-Western Muslims (figuratively if not literally) than to demonstrate to them in the plainest way possible that the United States cares about what happens to Muslims? And what better way to confirm for the people in this part of the world that the United States really IS the uncaring, self-absorbed empire they believe it to be, than by pledging a pittance in financial aid and acting like a vacation is more important than making it clear you understand the horror others are experiencing right now? If Pres. Bush is not even willing to sacrifice what he expected to be a week of total relaxation to go back to Washington and address the suffering in Southeast Asia, how can he expect anyone to believe he feels anything at all about that suffering?

Juan Cole makes this point eloquently and forcefully:

...US President George W. Bush has missed an important opportunity to reach out to the Muslims of Indonesia. The Bush administration at first pledged a paltry $15 million, a mysteriously chintzy response to what was obviously an enormous calamity. Bush himself remained on vacation, and now has reluctantly agreed to a meeting of the National Security Council by video conference. If Bush were a statesman, he would have flown to Jakarta and announced his solidarity with the Muslims of Indonesia (which has suffered at least 40,000 dead and rising).

Indeed, the worst-hit area of Indonesia is Aceh, the center of a Muslim separatist movement, and a gesture to Aceh from the US at this moment might have meant a lot in US-Muslim public relations. Bin Laden and Zawahiri sniffed around Aceh in hopes of recruiting operatives there, being experts in fishing in troubled waters. Doesn't the US want to outflank al-Qaeda? As it is, the president of the United States is invisible and on vacation (unlike several European heads of state), and could think of nothing better to do than announce a paltry pledge. As Harris and Wright rightly say, the rest of the world treated the US much better than this after September 11.

No comments: