Disaster Relief

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(HOST) As the world responds to the devastation in Asia, commentator Olin Robison reflects on U.S. participation in the disaster relief effort.

(ROBISON) After a slow start, the U.S. government seems now to be getting its act together regarding the appallingly destructive natural disaster in Asia. President Bush was too slow to respond at the beginning, taking some three days to make any comment at all. His first public comment was to the effect that the United States would commit $15 million to the disaster relief – a figure that was widely criticized as inadequate both at home and abroad.

A senior official at the UN publicly labeled the U.S. as “stingy,” and a leading British newspaper editorialized to the effect that no one is impressed when a billionaire writes a $50 check to a charity.

The publicly proffered U.S. aid was soon raised to $35 million and then to $350 million. The President then sent Secretary of State Powell and the President’s brother, Governor Jeb Bush of Florida, to the region both to observe and to help decide what needs to be done. And then he named former presidents Bill Clinton and George Bush, Sr. to lead a public fundraising drive. Speaking at the White House with the two former presidents on either side of him, President Bush said, “The great source of America’s generosity is not the government. It’s the good heart of the American people.”

Now, one can only applaud such an undertaking. Even so, I personally do not think the U.S. response has so far been either as generous or as imaginative as it might have been or, indeed, as it might yet be.

First, it is perfectly fair to be critical of the President for his slow and woefully inadequate initial response.

Second, the sending of the high level delegates to the region and involving the two former presidents is very good indeed.

Third, why is it so hard, in the face of a great natural disaster – why is it so hard for the U.S. government to get moving more quickly? I really do not want to criticize or question the President’s sincerity when he talks about “the good heart of the American people.” But, dear friends, however good-hearted the American people may be – and indeed they are – it is only the government that has the logistical capability to get large amounts of aid to where it is needed quickly. Even a great organization such as the International Red Cross does not have an air force.

Doesn’t this pose a great opportunity for a public-private partnership? The President might, for instance, say that the U.S. will make $350 million available immediately and then, above that, match private donations one-for-one, or even two-for-one. Why not use such a moment to rebuild the tattered relationships with the UN or the European Union? Or maybe with France? Undertaking such disaster relief in cooperation with others is an unqualified good. It is not only a time for generous support in dollars, but an opportunity for some exceptionally creative organization and diplomacy.

The unhappy truth is that the image of the United States, in most parts of the world, is at an all-time low. To acknowledge that fact is neither liberal nor conservative, neither Republican nor Democratic. And recognizing this diminished reputation is not unpatriotic.

There is, in the aftermath of this terrible disaster, an opportunity to build a genuine “coalition of the willing” – for, in this instance, the number of the “willing” is great indeed.

This is Olin Robison.

Olin Robison is president of the Salzburg Seminar, located in Middlebury, Vermont and Salzburg, Austria.

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