George Bush ended 2004 on a sour note.
But at least he maintained his record as the most disingenuous president since Richard Nixon.
When other world leaders rushed to respond to the crisis caused by last Sunday's tsunamis in southern Asia, George Bush decamped to his ranch in Texas for another vacation. For three days after the disaster, the only formal response from the White House was issued by a deputy press secretary. Finally, after a United Nations official made comments that seemed to highlight the disengaged nature of the official U.S. reaction to one of the worst catastrophes in human history, the president appeared at a hastily-scheduled press conference to grumble about how critics of his embarrassing performance were "misguided and ill-informed."
Bush bragged about the U.S. commitment of $35 million to help respond to a tragedy that has cost more than 100,000 lives and displaced millions of people in India, Indonesia, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Somalia and other countries.
What the president did not say is that this initial commitment is less than the planned expenditure for his Jan. 20 inauguration: $40 million.
It was, as well, less than the immediate commitment by smaller and less wealthy nations such as Spain, which has moved to guarantee a $68 million line of credit for the hardest hit countries.
The president's missteps have been noted by the rest of the world, and by diplomatic observers at home. Leslie Gelb, the president emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations, said Bush had missed an opportunity to display humanitarian, moral and diplomatic leadership in the world. Reflecting on the administration's response, Derek Mitchell, an expert on Asian affairs at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies, said, "I think politically they've done poorly."
At a time when the U.S. image abroad has been battered by the president's unilateral decision to order the invasion and occupation of Iraq, the Bush administration should have been sensitive to the need to respond quickly and effectively to a disaster of this magnitude. But that did not happen. Bush failed to engage at the critical point and then peddled the lie that the U.S. is in the forefront of providing humanitarian aid.
Thirty other developed nations commit greater proportions of their gross domestic products to humanitarian projects than does the U.S. In fact, the entire U.S. commitment for humanitarian aid in 2004 -- $2.4 billion -- was about the same amount as the U.S. spends every ten days to maintain the occupation of Iraq. The contrast between the Bush administration's spare-no-expense approach to Iraq and its penny-pinching response to the crisis in southern Asia is devastating for America's image abroad.
But it is not too late to respond in a more appropriate manner.
U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vermont, a longtime advocate for a more responsible U.S. policy regarding humanitarian aid, has suggested that the U.S. should rescind a portion of the reconstruction aid that has been budgeted for use in Iraq. Of an estimated $18.4 billion allocated for that purpose through December, only about $2 billion has been spent.
Leahy has already attracted some interest in his proposal from Congressional Republicans. Hopefully, this will influence the administration to dramatically increase its commitment to emergency relief and redevelopment aid.
What is the appropriate commitment? Over the critical period of the next several months, the U.S. should provide at least as much money to rebuilding southern Asia as it does to maintain the occupation of Iraq – a figure Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld last year put at roughly $3.9 billion a month but that is, in reality, much higher. Committing as much to aiding southern Asia as is now being spent to occupy Iraq would signal that the U.S. wants to rejoin the world community.
Committing dramatically less – as appears to be the president's intent -- will confirm the impression that the U.S. is more interested in spending money on a military misadventure than on a necessary reconstruction.
Copyright © 2004 The Nation