Friday, December 31, 2004

War of Perceptions

David Sanger has a very good analysis piece in the New York Times about America's response to the tsunamis in Southeast Asia and how that response can affect world opinion about us.

For me, the most salient point Sanger makes is that, for the millions of people who lost their families, their homes, their livelihoods, and their most basic sense of security on Sunday, December 26, 2004, that event is their 9/11. It's not relevant that it was a natural disaster and not a terrorist attack; the significance of this tragedy to the people who experienced it is in almost every way parallel to the significance of 9/11 for the American people.

Which means that how the United States government responds to THEIR 9/11 will have an enormous influence on how THEY feel about the United States after this.

It took 72 hours after the tsunamis washed away countless villages and tens of thousands of lives before Mr. Bush appeared in public to declare that the United States had the rudiments of a plan for addressing "loss and grief to the world that is beyond our comprehension." His aides said it took that long to understand the magnitude of the tragedy and to plan a recovery effort that must stretch from remote villages of Indonesia to the eastern coast of Africa.

But the aid effort that has now begun presents Mr. Bush with an opportunity to battle, with action rather than just words, the perception that took root in his first four years in office that he is all about America first.
Sanger points out that the defensive arguments made by U.S. officials about the amount of disaster and relief aid the United States gives, largely miss the point, because perceptions of how much America cares about other countries' tragedies in addition to our own is not solely measured in dollars.

To some degree, the war of perceptions has to do with whether the Asian nations believe Mr. Bush focuses on the tsunami tragedy with the same kind of energy he put in to making sure that other nations signed on to his counterterrorism agenda after Sept. 11. Just weeks after those attacks, Mr. Bush traveled to Shanghai for the annual summit of Asian leaders and made clear he would judge allies on the basis of how well they joined the fight. Among the first visitors to the Oval Office after the attack was Megawati Sukarnoputri, then Indonesia's president. She pledged to join the hunt for Al Qaeda operatives on her territory, and largely made good on the promise. ...

Mr. Bush's aides are aware that the depth of America's compassion will be compared to what other nations are spending, what Washington spends on lesser disasters at home, and what is now being spent in Iraq. ...

Then there are the domestic comparisons. Congress has approved roughly $13 billion for aid related to the hurricanes that hit the country in the late summer. Most of that is going to Florida, where Mr. Bush loaded fresh water and dry goods into the trunks of cars.
So far, Bush does not seem to truly be "getting" it. If the light doesn't dawn soon, his administration will have missed the best opportunity we've had in decades to make progress in the war on terrorism without firing a shot.

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