TOPICS : Bush defensive as aid effort lumbers into action

Jim Lobe:

With the South Asian death toll from Sunday’s tsunamis well beyond the 100,000 mark and climbing, US President Bush’s administration is defending itself against charges that its aid commitments so far have been largely too little, too grudging and too late.

Several major US newspapers complained that Bush had not only failed to take advantage of an opportunity to show key Asian countries and the world in general a more compassionate face than the one on display as commander-in-chief of his “war on terror,” but that he had also embarrassed the nation by taking more than three days to personally express his concern and pointed out that the $35 million pledged by Bush to the relief effort thus far is roughly what the Republicans plan to spend on the president’s inaugural festivities next month.

Although those remarks were not specifically directed at Washington’s aid record, they clearly had the desired effect, as Washington quickly added $20 million to the 15 million it had pledged, and US officials, full of indignation that anyone would accuse the US of stinginess, breathlessly announced that Bush would emerge from his ranch home in Crawford, Texas to make a personal statement about the catastrophe.

Bush stressed that the $35 million was “only a beginning” and did not include the costs of deploying half a dozen warships, including the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln, carrying about 20,000 sailors and Marines from Hong Kong to Indonesia, which, along with Sri Lanka, was hardest hit by the tsunamis. Washington earlier this week also set up a hub at Thailand’s Udorn air base to ferry relief supplies into the affected areas.

But the president’s own pique at Egeland came through loud and clear, if quite defensively, when he called the Norwegian’s statement “very misguided and ill-informed.” Bush went on to insist Washington had “provided $2.4 billion in food, in cash, in humanitarian relief to cover disasters last year.” While US officials insisted that creation of the new group, which would, they stressed, be open to membership by others, amounted to a simple recognition of their more extensive military infrastructure and geographical proximity, others suggested it was yet the latest example of Washington’s efforts to forge “coalitions of the willing” in order to bypass or undermine existing multilateral structures.

The largest single donor to date, Spain, has pledged $68 million, almost twice what US has committed, while Australia, with a population and economy roughly one-fifteenth the size of the US, has already pledged $27 million to relief operations. US contribution to date is not only far below the 40 per cent share that Bush claimed his government gave to emergency operations in 2003; it is not even close to the 25-33 per cent share that the US has historically devoted to international disasters.

“We spend $35 million before breakfast every day in Iraq,” noted Senator Patrick Leahy in what actually was only a tiny exaggeration. US operations in Iraq and Afghanistan are currently running at about $6 billion a month, or about $35 million every six hours. That comparison was not lost on analysts, who noted that Indonesia, the most populous Muslim nation and the country hardest hit by the tsunamis, had been a recruitment target for al-Qaeda. — IPS