January 5, 2005

January 5, 2005 | Commentary on

The Blame Game

The normal human reaction to horrendous disasters such as the one that befell the tsunami stricken areas of Southeast Asia the day after Christmas is incomprehension. "What did we do to deserve this?" was the question asked by victims throughout the countries that were hit. What indeed could any human have done awful enough to call down such destructive forces of nature?

Meanwhile, here in Washington the reaction of the press corps can only be characterized as abnormal, though sadly not surprising. Rather than report the news, the media focused on fixing the blame. They took their lead from Democratic critics of President Bush and U.N. Emergency Relief Coordinator Jan Egeland, who castigated as "stingy" the initial the pledge of $15 million in U.S. aid immediately after the disaster.

You might have thought the presidential election campaign had never finished, and that the media had come up with another reason for supporting John Kerry. Had President Bush been behind the curve? Had he already missed another golden opportunity to lead the world? Why did he not rush home from Christmas vacation at his ranch in Crawford, Texas. Didn't he care? Before long, something like "tsunami-gate" was gathering force on the air waives.

So many things are wrong with this reaction that it is hard to know where to begin. A start might be a reminder that Mr. Bush is president of the United States, not God. He does not move the mountains, nor does he command the waves. Mr. Bush was neither responsible for the disaster nor did even he have the power to assuage a catastrophe half a world away without warning or information.

Secondly, the real question was and remains, what can each of us do to help? How can we mobilize our resources and our charities to help the victims, their families and communities? The people of Southeast Asia will not benefit one iota from the hot air and pomposity infecting the American media.

Interestingly, every single official from Indonesia, Sri Lanka, India, Thailand or Malaysia who has been interviewed about American help and cooperation has expressed appreciation and satisfaction with official American efforts to help -- to the grave disappointment of interviewers naturally.

The fact is that international aid efforts now underway are unprecedented in scale. President Bush has promised $350 million in American public aid, to which should be added the deluge of private donations that have flowed in on the Internet from American citizens, over $350 million in just one week. That's the characteristic American generosity for you. In addition, Mr. Bush yesterday enlisted former presidents Clinton and Bush in the effort to raise more from private sources. (Needless to say, suspicions were immediately aired on CNN that the president was doing this for political advantage.)

To the funding already promised should also be added the costs of logistical support underway. Two naval battle groups equipped with much needed helicopters have been sent to help in the distribution of aid, of which one quarter of a million tons has already been dispatched. Some 12,000 U.S. military personnel are now involved in the largest military operation in the region since the Vietnam War.

As President Clinton said yesterday when asked the inevitable question by CNN, whether the Bush administration's efforts were sufficient, "I don't see how he could have done more."

And let us not forget that Mr. Bush quickly took the lead to assemble a coalition of our allies in the region for the relief efforts. Today, military personnel from Britain, Australia, India, Pakistan and Japan are working with Americans. When it comes to power projection in the service of international disaster relief, the world looks to the United States for leadership -- not to China, Russia or France or other aspiring international competitors.

It is deeply ironic that the same people who like to complain the loudest about American global dominance do not hesitate to call on the United States to deploy its vast military powers when the human need is there. Only the United States has the air-lift, the sea-lift and the organizational abilities to meet the enormous logistical challenges facing the tsunami stricken area.

Meanwhile, here at home, politically inspired critics and media blowhards should get over their unseemly initial reaction of "blame the president first." When the world is faced with a humanitarian crisis of this magnitude, you would think we could rise above partisan politics and bickering, just for a little while.

Helle Dale is director of Foreign Policy and Defense Studies at the Heritage Foundation. E-mail: helle.dale@heritage.org .

About the Author

Helle C. Dale Senior Fellow for Public Diplomacy
The Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom

First appeared in The Washington Times