Thursday, December 30, 2004

I got home from work tonight to learn that almost 120,000 people are now confirmed dead in Southeast Asia. Relief efforts are bogging down in bureaucratic, personnel, and distribution problems, and survivors in Indonesia and elsewhere have now gone over four days without food, water, or medical supplies.

Meanwhile, Pres. Bush is still vacationing in Texas, and he has found a way to avoid cutting short his holiday while also showing the survivors of the worst natural disaster in at least 40 years that the United States really does appreciate the enormity of their suffering: He is sending his brother, Jeb Bush, and Secretary of State, Colin Powell, to Southeast Asia. Colin Powell's performance on the job did not merit, in Pres. Bush's view, being kept on for a second term; but apparently Bush feels he will do well enough in Southeast Asia. As for Jeb, well, the White House stressed that the President was sending his brother to Southeast Asia instead of going himself or sending Vice-President Dick Cheney because Jeb has a lot of experience dealing with hurricanes in Florida.

The White House announced Thursday that Secretary of State Colin L. Powell and Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, President Bush's brother, would lead a delegation to affected countries. A White House spokesman in Texas, where the president was vacationing, emphasized Gov. Bush's experience in handling Florida's response to a series of hurricanes earlier this year. The delegation was scheduled to depart Sunday.
It's hard for me to believe that Pres. Bush would send Colin Powell, whose relationship with Bush is very chilly because of Powell's disagreements over Iraq policy, on a foreign policy or relief mission that Bush considered vital or even extremely important. Everyone knows Bush hates to travel out of the United States, but if he felt the mission was that important, he would send Dick Cheney, not a secretary of state whose philosophy he deeply mistrusts, and certainly not his brother, who isn't even a part of the Bush administration.

Nevertheless, Pres. Bush has launched a vigorous campaign to defend his response to the tsunami disaster. According to the Los Angeles Times, Bush predicted that "U.S. aid ultimately would surpass the $35 million in initial cash assistance."

It's certainly heartening to know that Bush is confident that the United States definitely will end up spending more than $35 million. One hopes it will be a lot more.

Bush also said that the tsunamis had "brought loss and grief beyond our comprehension," and announced that the United States would "stand with the affected governments as they care for the victims" (a few more specifics about what "standing with" might entail would be helpful).

Some will say, At least Bush is doing something now, but it still comes across to me as a thimbleful, and an insincere thimbleful at that. I'm sure the world has noticed that Bush's concern is still not enough to get him off that ranch and back to his desk in Washington. And most of what Bush has said falls under the heading of damage control, not genuine concern or, god forbid, empathy. Consider this, from the Los Angeles Times piece:

Wednesday's appearance by the president was his first since the tsunami struck Sunday. Bush spoke out a day after a White House spokesman deflected repeated questions about why the vacationing president, devoting much of his time to bicycling and clearing brush, had not been more assertive in the wake of such a massive tragedy.

Allies and critics of Bush said Wednesday that the administration had bungled its response to the tragedy, missing a chance to display good will at a time that the United States is facing opposition abroad to the war in Iraq. Much of that opposition comes from the Muslim world, and several of the countries affected by the tsunami have large Muslim populations.

"This was a golden opportunity for President Bush to speak to the victims of the tsunami and the Muslim world by showing care and compassion," said David Phillips, a former senior adviser to the State Department under Bush and President Clinton and now a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. "Instead the U.S. is on the defensive, trying to explain its approach."
Today's New York Times has an editorial sharply criticizing the Bush administration's response to the tsunami tragedy. The editorial poses the question, "Are we stingy?" and answers, "Yes." The editorial also debunks the claims made both by Colin Powell and by Pres. Bush that the United States gives more in foreign aid than any other nation or group of nations.

Fuming at the charge of stinginess, Mr. Powell pointed to disaster relief and said the United States "has given more aid in the last four years than any other nation or combination of nations in the world." But for development aid, America gave $16.2 billion in 2003; the European Union gave $37.1 billion. In 2002, those numbers were $13.2 billion for America, and $29.9 billion for Europe.

Making things worse, we often pledge more money than we actually deliver. Victims of the earthquake in Bam, Iran, a year ago are still living in tents because aid, including ours, has not materialized in the amounts pledged. And back in 2002, Mr. Bush announced his Millennium Challenge account to give African countries development assistance of up to $5 billion a year, but the account has yet to disburse a single dollar.

In the same edition of the Times, Frank Rich has a terrific piece about the Bush administration's distaste for sacrifice at home, and the growing disconnect Americans seem to feel between themselves and the rest of the world. While our soldiers and their families sacrifice everything for Bush's wars, and while most of the rest of the world is well acquainted with both suffering and sacrifice, the Bush administration does things like spend $40 million on inauguration festivities. It won't escape anyone's notice that that is more than Bush has pledged to help victims and survivors of the tsunamis, which have taken the lives of at least 120,000 people.

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