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.