The Bush administration came across as incredibly touchy this week on the question of whether the United States might be “stingy” when it comes to humanitarian relief for the tsunami-ravaged Indian Ocean basin.
“The United States is not stingy,” declared none other than Colin Powell, the lame duck secretary of state who has consistently been called on to defend an administration which has never had any loyalty to him, in an appearance Tuesday morning on CNN’s “American Morning.” The CNN appearance was part of a morning swing that Powell made of the major broadcast and cable television news programs in the wake of comments made the day before by Jan Egeland, the United Nations emergency relief coordinator.
Powell’s pique was mirrored by much of the American media, with the New York Post turning in one of its ritualistic U.N.-bashing tirades by Wednesday.
The odd thing is that Egeland, a Norwegian diplomat now attached to the U.N., did not point a finger directly at the U.S. Noting that the emergency needs of the nations affected by the tsunami was likely to run in the billions, Egeland argued that “rich” nations, presumably including those in Scandinavia, need to demonstrate a willingness to spend more than 0.1 or 0.2 percent of their gross national incomes on humanitarian efforts.
In a comment that would seem to have been aimed at the European community, Japan, Australia and Canada, as well as the U.S., Egeland finished his thought by saying, “It is beyond me why we are so stingy, really.”
Apparently, though, this was one of those situations where if the shoes fits…
According to the Congressional Research Service, the United States in absolute dollars is the world’s largest contributor to humanitarian aid efforts, which is not surprising, given that we have the largest economy on the planet. However, measured as a percentage of GNP, our contribution of 0.2 percent of total economic activity ranks us fairly low among developed nations.
The Bush administration knows this, and that’s undoubtedly why it hustled Powell out onto the broadcast breakfast circuit to express how irate the American people were about what the Post called this “slur.”
But even as Egeland wasted most of Tuesday hitting the same news outlets to “clarify” his comments, Bush officials increased the U.S. commitment from $15 million to $35 million. Once Egeland was done apologizing and the administration had finished jacking up its level of support, Bush, on vacation in Crawford, Texas, let it be known that he was satisfied by the U.N. diplomat’s obeisance.
These clowns really don’t get it.
The war in Iraq is, give or take some very loose change, looking, to this point, to be a $200 billion dollar proposition. That number is nearly 6,000 times the amount the Bush team has talked about to date in terms of emergency relief in Asia. Obviously, trying to equate expenditures in one theater to those in the other serves no particular purpose. The point, instead, is to appreciate the order of magnitude commitment this nation is willing to make to secure a policy goal, even when that aim has nothing approaching a consensus among the American people.
I am not a good candidate to articulate what our goals in Iraq are, since I long ago abandoned any faith that the president himself was willing or able to spell them out honestly and clearly. But one of the wishes that the president’s men and women certainly must have is to demonstrate this nation’s ability to lead the world away from chaos and disorder, no matter how wrong-headed any of their critics might say the Iraq policy is in achieving that goal.
And chaos and disorder, not to mention disease, misery, poverty and death are certainly what lies on the other side of an insufficient effort to relieve the tragedy of the Indian Ocean nations. And the whole world is watching.
How much leadership and how much money will the United States expend in the effort to meet the desperate needs of non-white people of different cultures and diverse religions who live in areas not rich in oil?
There has been much talk since 9/11 about the Arab Street. In terms of our ability to provide positive, attractive leadership in the world, we must expand that concept to include the Islamic Street and then the Developing World Street.
The tragedy unleashed at the depths of the Indian Ocean just one day after Christmas sets up an enormous test of American credibility in the world. Rather than whining about U.N. diplomats who are beating up on American sensibilities, this nation better make humanitarian relief in the wake of this tragedy a top priority in the New Year.