The Times is Right

In October, I slammed the New York Times for leading off a story about the Bush-Kerry debate with a political ad for Kerry. That was bad form. Good form: Yesterday’s gripping analysis about U.S. aid in the wake of the devastating tsunami in the Indian Ocean. With respect to U.S. aid response, the story’s headline makes the point: “It’s About Aid, and an Image.” I agree, and I contend that the country’s response so far has been slow and, yes, stingy.

Even viewed from the most selfish perspective possible, public relations, the Bush Administration missed an important opportunity in the hours following the horrific disaster, which, I might add, based on the number of missing Americans, might have a death toll close to the Twin Towers disaster. 

The U.S. should have immediately sent military logistic personnel and everyday soldiers to get out there on the beaches and help recover and bury the dead, bring in fresh water—and even K-rations. I understand the political situation in the area might make sending soldiers difficult. Fine, dress them in their civilian clothes, but get the men and women on the beaches.

From the New York Times analysis:

Perceptions set in a first term have a way of becoming the political canvas of the second. And America’s response to this tragedy, some administration officials acknowledged, is crucial in places like Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim nation, where the earthquake and tsunami first hit and where Islamic fundamentalism, never a political force during the cold war, is seeking to make inroads.

Any missteps by the United States in the country’s politically volatile environment, noted a senior American official who is frequently in Southeast Asia, ‘will be exploited by the Islamic extremists to bolster their own case.’

A quick and generous response, including commitment to billions of dollars in aid, could have generated lots of goodwill at a time when many nations question motivations and actions of the U.S. war in Iraq. I can’t think of a better place for spending my tax dollars right now than giving aid in this crisis.

I understand that organizing aid isn’t easy, but if the U.S. can logistically plan and launch an invasion, surely we could have gotten a few thousand military personnel and supplies to devastated coastal areas along the Indian Ocean—or, at least now, get teams into the far-flung areas near the seaquake’s epicenter. The PR value could be enormous.

Again from the New York Times analysis: “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”. Spain is promising $68 million and Australia $27 million, compared to the U.S. $35 million commitment. “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, what’s the perception? That we can commit billions here, where so few lives were lost by comparison, and so heavily to a state where the president’s brother is governor? Then there is the sticky Muslim issue, from an apparently Christian president. People will ask, and rightly so, would the United States have shown greater generosity to white, Christian nations?

I do think we should be more generous, but I also don’t believe there are any shenanigans. There don’t have to be. Perception is everything, particularly in a crisis, and I don’t see how the U.S. response so far can generate much good perception.

The PR value could have been enormous, and so the Bush Administration squandered an opportunity impossible to recapture. The time to rush into the burning building has passed.

But what about goodwill? What about giving aid because it’s the right thing to do? What about showing the world America’s heart, or that the government doesn’t stereotype all Muslims as potential terrorists?

Recently, I watched the movie “The Day After Tomorrow” on DVD. Unbelievable as the movie may be, it had an ending more chilling than ice that swept the Northern Hemisphere. Speaking from Mexico, the vice president turned president commented about how the people there welcomed the U.S. refugees. He was ashamed, because of how the USA treated its neighbor, as he should have been.

Politically, I consider myself independent. I rarely vote a straight party line. So I am not a card-carrying liberal out to stick it to our president; I voted for Bush last election. But, because I did vote for him, I expect him and his cabinet to be accountable to the will of the people; in this instance, the goodwill of the people.

We should have responded faster and should do even more now. But, in coordination with the United Nations, rather than any separate, independent relief effort. The time for independence was in immediacy following the tsunamis. Now is the time for cooperation.

Who knows, maybe through cooperation, the U.S. might yet rebuild some goodwill at the UN. At the least, we can help the shattered Indian Ocean tsunami nations rebuild their coastal communities, many of which brought tourism money into local and national economies.

Photo Credit: Forest Runner