In defence of President Bush

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.

6 thoughts on “In defence of President Bush”

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  2. You don’t think symbolism matters? I’m willing to grudgingly admit that “no amount of benevolence in South-East Asia or maritime South Asia is going to counter America’s negative image in the Islamic world.” But the point is that this is an opportunity to show that (rest of the) world that, yes, America is needed in the world and can do some real good at times. This is very important for us at a moment when our global influence is at an ebb. I don’t think you’re completely correct in minimizing the importance of the U.S. role in relief efforts, either. Frankly, only the U.S. has the experience and logistical capacity (in this case, Pacific Command) to coordinate such a gargantuan operation sprawling across such a large swath of the world. To give you a concrete example, Medicins Sans Frontieres has sent 12 people to Sri Lanka along with 30 tons of relief supplies. But there are something like one million homeless Sri Lankans right now. A few C-130s loaded up with water and blankets and food would go a long way, and there need to be people to unload it, provide security, etc.

  3. Praktike,

    American government aid (and private philanthrophy) are well regarded in many parts of the world, including South Asia. America’s capability (and history) of doing good is known too (caveat: the evil that men do lives after them..the good is oft inter’d with their bones). This part of the world knows and appreciates the good America does and can do.

    Symbolism matters, for matters of public diplomacy. I don’t think it helps gets blankets to people any faster.

    I agree that the US military has capabilities that can help; but again, how those are used depends on the degree of leadership it wants to assume.

    I agree with you when you express concern over a matter of maintaining American ‘global influence’. My point is that humanitarian relief can well proceed even if that objective of global influence is not attained.

  4. All that really matters is helping people but sadly this will not be the focus for many. To many people will be unable to resist a chance at political gain or advantage as I say in my post here The US can and should do as much as is possible and it will. Much of the aid will not just be in the form of money either but food, medicine etc. Already the government is working with pharmaceutical companies, suppliers of things that most people would not think like plastic sheeting, etc to get those goods to people know. The people of the US are also the most generous and give more money to charities than any other people per capita and in total more than their government. Maybe Bush can help things by trying to be a political symbol but he could also harm things. Unfortunately some might even balk at aid that seemed to be too connected to Bush. Some donors might even turn their back on a cause the president supported just because of their irrational dislike of the man. Perhaps we might even see something like what has happened in Sri Lanka with the rejection of aid in the form of 150 medical personnel from Israel by Sri Lank ( Frankly with something this terrible and tragic I would like to see as little as possible of the worlds leaders trying to provide false plattudes or words of condolence. Let s focus on what’s really important which is helping as many people as fast as possible and try as much as we can to set aside the politics and BS for the time being.

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