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 was less than the planned expenditure for his Jan. 20 inauguration: $40 million.
It was, as well, less than the initial commitment by smaller and less wealthy nations such as Spain, which moved immediately to guarantee a $68 million line of credit for relief and rebuilding efforts.
The president's missteps were 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."
An embarrased Bush administration scrambled to up the ante with a new commitment of $350 million, and the president dispatched Secretary of State Colin Powell and First Brother Jeb Bush to Asia. President Bush even ordered that flags be lowed in recognition of the tragedy.
But none of the face-saving measures erased the initial impression that this president is anything but a compassionate conservative.
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 initial penny-pinching response to the crisis in southern Asia was devastating for America's image abroad. And, even as Bush tried to make amends, his administration's priorities remained out of whack -- the $350 million commitment that the administration now offers in response to the earthquake and tsunami damage equals less than two days of Iraq spending.
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 rebuild 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.
John Nichols' book on Cheney, Dick: The Man Who Is President, has just been released by The New Press. Former White House counsel John Dean, the author of Worse Than Watergate, says, "This page-turner closes the case: Cheney is our de facto president." Arianna Huffington, the author of Fanatics and Fools, calls Dick, "The first full portrait of The Most Powerful Number Two in History, a scary and appalling picture. Cheney is revealed as the poster child for crony capitalism (think Halliburton's no bid, cost-plus Iraq contracts) and crony democracy (think Scalia and duck-hunting)."
Dick: The Man Who Is President is available from independent bookstores nationwide and by clicking here.