On Sunday, Dec. 26, an earthquake-triggered tsunami with an effect of 1,000 miles from its epicenter in the Indian Ocean near Sumatra devastated 12 countries. Within hours, numerous countries and private social service agencies had begun massive relief operations. President George W. Bush, vacationing on his ranch in Crawford, Texas, made no public statements. His press office, however, released a 121-word press expressing the President’s “condolences,” and that the Bush Administration would provide all “appropriate assistance” to the affected nations. The statement did not directly quote the President. In contrast, German chancellor Gerhard Schröder cut short his vacation to return to Berlin.
On Monday, Bush’s deputy press secretary indicated that Bush “received a special briefing” about the tragedy,” that the administration’s “thoughts and prayers are with all those who are suffering,” and that the U.S. “will be a leading partner” in relief operations.
On Tuesday, the President bicycled and continued to clear brush from his ranch. He said nothing to the American public, to the media, or to the international community. However, the deputy press secretary did say that the President was “saddened and has extended his condolences for this terrible tragedy.” When challenged as to why the public silence, a White House official bluntly stated, “The President wanted to be fully briefed on our efforts. He didn’t want to make a symbolic statement about, ‘We feel your pain.'” It was an excuse for why the man who believes he is a “compassionate conservative” once again failed to speak out during yet another extended vacation. More important, it was a disgusting attack upon Bill Clinton who did speak out shortly after the devastation and, when president, was quick to let world leaders know that the United States would provide understanding, sympathy, and supplies for humanitarian relief-not unlike world leaders who were quick to express their outrage and assistance following 9/11, a year into Bush’s first term.
That second day after the 9.0 underwater earthquake unleashed more than 30-foot waves of destruction, Jan Egeland, United Nations emergency relief coordinator, bluntly stated that the world’s rich nations were normally “stingy” in their response to humanitarian aid. Of the world’s 30 richest countries, the United States ranks near the bottom with contributions of 0.14 percent of its gross national product, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. (Norway, with 0.92 percent, is the highest.)
“The United States is not stingy,” pouted Colin Powell, the outgoing secretary of state. There was no mention that the Bush Administration a week earlier proposed cutting back its contribution to the World Food Bank. Nevertheless, following Egeland’s challenge, the United States announced it would donate another $20 million in aid, for a total of $35 million.
By then, Canada, with a population of about 11 percent that of the U.S. and a Gross Domestic Product (GDP) about 6 percent that of the U.S., pledged $33 million. Spain, with a population of about one-seventh that of the U.S. and a GDP about 6 percent that of the U.S., quickly pledged more than $68 million in relief, twice that initially committed by the U.S. Australia, with a population about 7 percent and a GDP about 4 percent of that of the United States, pledged $20 million. Japan, with a population about two-fifths and a GDP about half that of the U.S., pledged at least $40 million; the United Kingdom, with a population of one-fifth and a GDP of about 13 percent of that of the U.S. also pledged at least $40 million. France, with a population about one-fifth that of the U.S. and a GDP about one-tenth that of the U.S., quickly pledged $27 million. Also responding quickly, with statements by their leaders coupled with financial and humanitarian assistance, were dozens of other countries. Israel contributed millions and pledged a 150-member medical team; other countries had already been shipping thousands of tons of relief supplies. International aid organizations believe more than $14 billion will be needed for humanitarian assistance, much of it donated by individuals and corporations.
On Wednesday, the third day after the earthquake and resulting tsunami, with the death toll approaching 70,000, and expected to rise to more than 100,000, with more than two million expected to be homeless, with substantial health and sanitation problems for those who lived, and with millions now questioning why America’s president hadn’t spoken out or committed more resources, George W. Bush finally held a news conference on his ranch.
“Laura and I, and the American people, are shocked and we are saddened,” said the President at the beginning of a 327-word statement that took only about three minutes to deliver. He said that earlier that morning he spoke with the leaders of India, Sri Lanka, Thailand, and Indonesia, four of the countries hit hardest by the disaster. He then announced American disaster experts were in the affected areas, that he had ordered an aircraft carrier group to divert to the Indian Ocean, a hospital ship, seven water-producing ships, a Marine expeditionary unit and several aircraft to assist relief operations.
With more than 125,000 uniformed military personnel in Iraq, perhaps another 15,000 in Afghanistan, and the Reserves and National Guard stretched so thin that tours of duty in Iraq have been irrevocably extended, the possibility of a massive American presence in the affected countries by anyone other than civilians working for social service agencies is minimal. “We will prevail over this destruction,” announced the commander-in-chief who believes he is a wartime president.
The previous year, the U.S. Agency for International Development provided about $2.4 billion for humanitarian relief, much of it for work in Afghanistan and Iraq, the largest contribution of any country in the world. President Bush believes the United States might provide as much as $ 1 billion in cash and in-kind donations (the cost of maintaining the U.S.S. Abraham Lincoln in the Indian Ocean is figured into the totals) to assist the nations hit by the worst natural disaster in more than four decades. That $1 billion, if all of it is sent to the affected nations, would be about one-half of one percent of what is planned for the war in Iraq. It was what the President decided would be “appropriate.”
WALTER BRASCH, professor of journalism at Bloomsburg University, is an award-winning syndicated columnist and the author of 15 books, most of them about social issues, the First Amendment, and the media. His forthcoming book is America’s Unpatriotic Acts; The Federal Government’s Violation of Constitutional and Civil Liberties (Peter Lang Publishing.) You may contact Brasch at firstname.lastname@example.org or at www.walterbrasch.com