Beyond symbolism, please
So President Bush remained ‘cloistered on his Texas ranch for the Christmas holiday rather than speak in person about the tragedy’. So the USAID experts and its Pacific Fleet were activated a couple of days after the tragedy occurred. So the American government pledged an additional $20 million after initial aid commitment of $15 million was criticised as being too low. So former president Bill Clinton, rather than current president George W Bush, scored on behalf of America. So what?
Why is the United States expected to be the champion of the world’s unfortunates all the time? Does a public appearance by President Bush himself make any bit of a difference on the ground? It is not as if the American president’s words will provide any more motivation for those people engaged in rescue and relief activities. Beyond symbolism, a presidential appearance has little meaning. And judging by the response many aid agencies are receiving, the American people, not least the South Asian diaspora, have been enthusiastic in giving generously in support of the victims’ cause.
The most cynical form of criticism comes from those quarters that want President Bush to use this as an ‘opportunity’ to somehow rescue America’s standing that took a beating after the Iraq war. Taken in the narrowest sense, they perhaps mean that the opportunity not to be missed is one of positive PR mileage. In other words, more hypocrisy to counter hypocrisy? In a broader sense, they perhaps mean that America should take the opportunity to ‘atone’ and show that it is capable of benevolence. But no amount of benevolence in South-East Asia or maritime South Asia is going to counter America’s negative image in the Islamic world. This line of criticism is ill-judged.
The fact of the matter is that immediate rescue and emergency relief can only be provided by the civic authorities, communities and organisations that are already on the ground. There is only so much that the American government can do at this stage. But there is a greater challenge ahead — the rehabilitation of millions of victims and rebuilding of affected communities. That too is primarily the responsibility of individual governments but does require the support and cooperation of others; especially neighbours, G-7 countries and not least, the United Nations. The international community can help with this; but it is for the United States to decide how much leadership it intends to shoulder.