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Putting It in Perspective

War and the Tsunami

by CHRISTOPHER DELISO

With a death toll rising above 120,000, and large affected areas still inaccessible to rescuers, the Asian tsunami disaster has become a truly global crisis. Millions from all over the world have been affected, whole industries, villages, even tribes destroyed in an instant. Although the human casualties alone are so far of the magnitude of about 40 9/11′s, the US government’s initial reaction was sluggish at best. It took the scathing "stingy" comment from UN official Jan Egeland to provoke the Bush Administration into taking "the lead," as they are saying now. Perhaps they will. But the question remains, why was it a full 3 days into the catastrophe before they took the initiative?

The US government initially offered $15 million, but after the Egeland comment increased it to $35 million. The New York Times quite rightly pointed out that the latter was still a "miserly drop in the bucket" from the world’s wealthiest nation. The newspaper put the initial offering in perspective, dismissing $15 million as less than what the Republicans will shell out for George W. Bush’s inaugural ceremony -a vestigial formality if ever there was one – alone.

It is all too obvious that the US’s relative disinterest in the disaster has to do with its cause: a random act of nature. Absent a human actor who can easily be held up to blame, an act of natural terror is not interesting for the powers that be, because it does not allow a reaction of the order of regime change or "shock and awe" bombardment. Really, who wants to feed the people who are starving for food, when it’s so much more satisfying to feed those who seem to be starving for democracy? When there’s no one to punish, no perceived political wrong to right, the US tends to ignore the crisis. Or, as with the devastating Bam earthquake in Iran, which killed over 20,000 and occurred exactly one year to the day before the tsunami, the government grudgingly pledged to help out with some relief – and then immediately started baying for Iranian blood once again. However, as the Times pointed out, the aid for Iran "still has not been delivered." We shouldn’t hold our breath.

As everyone knows, wars and regime change cost a lot of money. In other words, well-connected individuals and corporations make a lot of money from them. Sure, relief agencies have always been marred by corruption charges, but a similar capacity for profiteering does not exist here, and the work is hardly as sexy. And, at least sometimes, such agencies do get the job done – as Eric Garris points out with Medecins Sans Frontieres.

How much does war cost, and what uses could that money be put to instead? Costofwar.com answers both questions, displaying a running counter of the cost of fighting the war in Iraq, along with a comparative study beneath of such worthy causes as health, education, college scholarships, immunizations, AIDS and world hunger. The amount comparisons are astonishing, and should provoke some serious thought about America’s priorities.

The same logic certainly applies to the Tsunami relief, which although being shared by the UN and numerous foreign countries and bodies could certainly benefit from the generosity of Uncle Sam. After all, it could have been us (‘us’ is anyone who happens to live near a coastline with similar geographic dynamics in play, not just Americans). And if the US government is indeed so eager to display its alleged benevolence, this would be a good opportunity to make the most of of a horrendous situation.

The government is not entirely insensitive to charges of profligacy when it comes to wars. But here it tends to revel in its own deceptive language, as with today’s New York Times story that announces Pentagon "budget cuts" in "the billions." While officials trumpet a $60 billion cut (over the next 6 years), part of this amount seems to be represented by the perceived value of an old aircraft carrier which is set to be mothballed – hardly an unexpected or sudden decision. The other parts of the "cuts" just mean not buying in the future – actually, just putting off the purchase of – some F/A-22 fighters for the Air Force and a new Navy destroyer.

The Times states that since 9/11 Pentagon spending has gotten a healthy 41 percent boost, "to about $420 billion this year." In other words, far from offering $60 billion "cuts," the Pentagon got a mere $360 billion increase – and that’s even ignoring the fuzzy logic behind the deceptive language.

It is a shame that the US government has chosen to display its military’s flawless technology, logistical depth and manpower through killing tens of thousands in Iraq and Afghanistan, all for no good reason and with no logical justification. They talk about winning "hearts and minds" in the outside world – and even believe that they can do it through war. But if the US really wanted to "shock and awe" the rest of the world, it would have immediately directed its available forces in the region to provide tsunami relief. In light of the tragedy, it could have even called a halt (if even a temporary one) to offensive actions in Iraq. As it stands, the incongruity between the US pledging to save lives in one corner of the world even as it stamps them out in another can only be seen as grotesque.

By the way, in the 90 minutes it took to write this article, the cost of the war in Iraq jumped from $147,561,500,303 to $147,571,322,304. That’s  a difference of almost 10 million dollars or, in other terms, the better half of the Bush inaugural.

Yet right now, every passing moment is critical for tsunami survivors left without homes, possessions, families and food. Time is of the essence: the UN is warning that epidemics may break out soon, and increasing looting and violence indicate the poorest and weakest victims may be trampled underfoot. Nevertheless, it appears that securing Iraq’s show elections and transformation into a Jeffersonian democracy outweigh these problems.

CHRISTOPHER DELISO is a Balkan-based journalist, travel writer and critic of interventionist foreign policy. Over the past few years, Mr. Deliso’s writing for Antiwar.com, UPI, various American newspapers, websites and European strategic analysis firms has taken him everywhere from the shores of the Adriatic to the top of the Caucasus Mountains. He holds a master’s degree with distinction in Byzantine Studies from Oxford University, and also manages the Balkan-interest news and analysis website, Balkanalysis.com.