On Sunday, December 26, 2004 an earthquake with its epicenter in the Indian Ocean near Sumatra triggered a tsunami, which devastated 12 countries. Within hours, numerous countries and private social service agencies had begun massive relief operations. President George W. Bush, vacationing on his ranch in Crawford, Texas, made no public statements. His press office, however, released a 121-word press statement expressing the President’s “condolences,” and that the Bush Administration would provide all “appropriate assistance” to the affected nations. The statement did not directly quote the President. In contrast, German chancellor Gerhard Schröder cut short his vacation to return to Berlin.
On Monday, Bush’s deputy press secretary indicated that Bush “received a special briefing” about the tragedy, that the administration’s “thoughts and prayers are with all those who are suffering,” and that the US “will be a leading partner” in relief operations.
On Tuesday, the President bicycled and continued to clear brush from his ranch. He said nothing to the American public, to the media, or to the international community. However, the deputy press secretary did say that the President was “saddened and has extended his condolences for this terrible tragedy”. When challenged as to why the public silence, a White House official bluntly stated, “The President wanted to be fully briefed on our efforts. He didn’t want to make a symbolic statement about, ‘We feel your pain’”. It was an excuse for why the man who believes he is a “compassionate conservative” once again failed to speak out during yet another extended vacation. More important, it was a disgusting attack upon Bill Clinton who did speak out shortly after the devastation and, when president, was quick to let world leaders know that the United States would provide understanding, sympathy, and supplies for humanitarian relief - not unlike world leaders who were quick to express their outrage and assistance following 9/11, a year into Bush’s first term.
That second day after the scale 9.0 underwater earthquake unleashed more than ten metre waves of destruction, Jan Egeland, United Nations emergency relief co-ordinator, bluntly stated that the world’s rich nations were normally “stingy” in their response to humanitarian aid. Of the world’s 30 richest countries, the United States ranks near the bottom with contributions of 0.14 per cent of its gross national product, according to the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development. (Norway, with 0.92 per cent, is the highest.)
“The United States is not stingy,” pouted Colin Powell, the outgoing Secretary of State. There was no mention that the Bush Administration a week earlier proposed cutting back its contribution to the World Food Bank. Nevertheless, following Egeland’s challenge, the United States announced it would donate another US$20 million in aid, to make a total of US$35 million.
By then, Canada, with a population of about 11 per cent that of the US and a Gross Domestic Product (GDP) about 6 per cent that of the US, pledged US$33 million; Spain, with a population of about one-seventh that of the US and a GDP about 6 per cent that of the US, quickly pledged more than US$68 million in relief, twice that initially committed by the US; Australia, with a population about 7 per cent and a GDP about 4 per cent of that of the United States, pledged US$20 million; Japan, with a population about two-fifths and a GDP about half that of the US, pledged at least US$40 million; the United Kingdom, with a population of one-fifth and a GDP of about 13 per cent of that of the US also pledged at least US$40 million; and France, with a population about one-fifth that of the US and a GDP about one-tenth that of the US, quickly pledged US$27 million.
Also responding quickly, with statements by their leaders coupled with financial and humanitarian assistance, were dozens of other countries. Israel contributed millions and pledged a 150-member medical team: Other countries had already been shipping thousands of tons of relief supplies. International aid organisations believe more than US$14 billion will be needed for humanitarian assistance, much of it donated by individuals and corporations.
On Wednesday, the third day after the earthquake and resulting tsunami, with the death toll approaching 70,000, and expected to rise to more than 100,000, with more than two million expected to be homeless, with substantial health and sanitation problems for those who lived, and with millions now questioning why America’s president hadn’t spoken out or committed more resources, George W. Bush finally held a news conference on his ranch.
“Laura and I, and the American people, are shocked and we are saddened,” said the President at the beginning of a 327-word statement that took only about 3 minutes to deliver. He said that earlier that morning he spoke with the leaders of India, Sri Lanka, Thailand, and Indonesia, four of the countries hit hardest by the disaster. He then announced American disaster experts were in the affected areas, that he had ordered an aircraft carrier group to divert to the Indian Ocean, a hospital ship, seven water-producing ships, a Marine expeditionary unit and several aircraft to assist relief operations.
With more than 125,000 uniformed military personnel in Iraq, perhaps another 15,000 in Afghanistan, and the Reserves and National Guard stretched so thin that tours of duty in Iraq have been irrevocably extended, the possibility of a massive American presence in the affected countries by anyone other than civilians working for social service agencies is minimal. “We will prevail over this destruction,” announced the commander-in-chief who believes he is a wartime president.
The previous year, the US Agency for International Development provided about US$2.4 billion for humanitarian relief, much of it for work in Afghanistan and Iraq, the largest contribution of any country in the world. President Bush believes the United States might provide as much as US$1 billion in cash and in-kind donations (the cost of maintaining the USS Abraham Lincoln in the Indian Ocean is figured into the totals) to assist the nations hit by the worst natural disaster in more than four decades. That US$1 billion, if all of it is sent to the affected nations, would be about 0.5 per cent of what is planned for the war in Iraq. It was what the President decided would be “appropriate”.