As the death toll from the tsunami disaster continued to grow, the Bush Administration scrambled to answer widespread criticism that it responded too slowly and with too little aid for the victims. The White House has now increased the pledge of US assistance to $350 million from an original $15 million, sent Secretary of State Colin Powell and Florida Governor Jeb Bush to the region and dispatched ships and troops to help with the relief efforts. The speed with which the Administration changed course suggests that it not only misjudged the severity of the crisis; it also underestimated the compassion of the American people.
The tsunami disaster has reopened American hearts and minds–at least temporarily–to the suffering of other people, which our own tragedy in 2001 had largely closed off. In the days following September 11, conservative commentators argued that the terrorist attacks had changed America–how we saw ourselves and how we must deal with the world. The Administration used that sentiment to militarize US foreign policy and to hijack American idealism for a misguided war on Iraq. It reduced our relationships with other nations to a simple equation–“you’re either with us or against us”–in the “war on terrorism.” Lost in the process was not just America’s traditional respect for international law and cooperation but also much of our compassion for those less fortunate and less secure.
A new catastrophe, this one thousands of miles from our shores, has now given us a chance to reclaim some of what we lost and to play a more constructive and fitting international role than the one we’ve played for more than three years. The tsunami has made it easier to see just how distorted our national priorities have become: $200 billion for a war of occupation, when just a portion of that money could have helped eradicate much of the disease and illiteracy that afflicts the underdeveloped world. As important, it has reminded us of the vulnerability we share with other people and of the goodwill our power and resources can generate when they’re used to help those people recover their lives and livelihoods.
The question is, How can we build on the America that has been reawakened? We are indeed a “stingy” nation (a criticism leveled at all Western countries in the aftermath of the tsunami but most aptly describing the United States), giving a mere 0.15 percent of our national income in development aid. This is the lowest percentage of any industrialized country and, relative to GDP, less than a third of what the Europeans give. It’s also only a fifth of what we pledged in 1970 and recommitted ourselves to in 2000. Meanwhile, the needs grow. Some 150,000 or more people died as a result of the tsunami, but that many people die every day because of poverty, curable diseases, AIDS or lack of such basics as clean water.
Given the public outpouring of sympathy for the tsunami victims, the Bush Administration had no choice but to put on a different face. It is now up to those of us who believe in this more compassionate and progressive America to see that Washington follows through on its pledges of support after the television cameras are turned off. It is also up to us to turn public concern into more durable changes in American policies and priorities–ones that involve a far greater commitment to institutions like the United Nations that increase our collective ability to deal with both natural and man-made disasters and that move us from a politics of military security to one of human security.