Great disasters bring out the best and the worst in us humans. The international response to Hurricane Katrina demonstrates this fact, no less than reactions among those stricken all along the Gulf Coast. People around the world have expressed their sympathy, sent condolences, offered help, started collections to help the victims. Everybody from the Queen of England to Pope Benedict XVI sent their condolences Over 90 nations offered assistance and European countries opened up their strategic oil reserves. Though many of those offers of aid come in forms that cannot be used, let's appreciate the spirit of generosity.
Yet, what has been far less appealing is the unseemly international display of "schadenfreude" over the fall of the mighty United States, which has been mixed with sanctimonious sniffing at the sight of poor black Americans stranded in the New Orleans Convention Center and the Superdome after the storm.
As usual, the international media has served as an echo chamber of the American media. Just as CNN was ready from day one to look for people to interview to blame to the federal government, so were media the world over ready to blame President Bush for the actions of Mother Nature. In the words of The Irish Times, "This is a defining moment for Mr. Bush, just as 9/11 was. So far his reputation for prompt and firm crisis management has fallen far short of what is required."
Perhaps the most appalling reaction of this kind came from the Economist magazine, which is otherwise among the best-informed European publications about to the United States. Last week's cover carried a picture from New Orleans of a weeping black woman, with the title: "The Shaming of America."
Shaming? Since when is it a shame to be hit by the worst natural disaster in your nation's history, to have infrastructure washed away in an area comparable to Britain, whence the Economist hails. Did the Economist blast the "shaming of France" in August 2003, when a heat wave killed an estimated 11,000 mainly elderly people, but failed to bring the French government back from vacation? By contrast, the death toll in New Orleans to date is less than 200.
Now, we all have been distressed by the inadequacy of U.S. government responses at all levels in the first days after Hurricane Katrina. But the jumping to conclusions and the implications of collective guilt contained in the Economist's editorial on the Hurricane are just outrageous. For instance:
"Since Hurricane Katrina, the world's view of America has changed. The disaster has exposed some shocking truths about the place: the bitterness of its sharp racial divide, the abandonment of the dispossessed, the weakness of critical infrastructure. But the most astonishing and most shaming revelation has been of its government's failure to bring succor to its people at their time of greatest need."
Meanwhile, in the Financial Times, another influential British publication widely circulating in the United States, columnist Philip Stephens opined on the disaster under the headline "The world needs a powerful but more humble America." He writes "there is a sadness at the loss of so many lives but also a nagging satisfaction that Bush's inert administration has been humbled."
One should presumably be grateful that Mr. Stephens concedes that the world still needs the United States -- with all its shortcomings. Critics of the war in Iraq, on the other hand, have found fertile ground in the debris from the hurricane. The Swiss paper Le Temps knew exactly why the New Orleans levees broke: "The sea walls would not have burst in New Orleans if the funds meant for strengthening them had not been cut to help the wear effort in Iraq and the war on terror." A total fabrication, of course.
In Germany, unsurprisingly, some even blamed the American rejection of the Kyoto Protocol, and argued that Americans reaped what they sowed because of their contribution to global warming. "Americans have a big effect on the greenhouse effect," noted Joern Ehlers, spokesman for the World Wildlife Fund Germany.
What most international media totally fail to understand is that the American federal system does not give the president dictatorial powers to override elected state and local officials, who have the first line of responsibility for their citizens. How to make them live up to those responsibilities, work together and how best to involved the federal government at the appropriate time and level are the serious questions to be answered.
Helle Dale is director of the Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies at the Heritage Foundation.
First appeared in the Washington Times