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The U.S. Role

Aid Grows Amid Remarks About President's Absence

By John F. Harris and Robin Wright
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, December 29, 2004; Page A01

The Bush administration more than doubled its financial commitment yesterday to provide relief to nations suffering from the Indian Ocean tsunami, amid complaints that the vacationing President Bush has been insensitive to a humanitarian catastrophe of epic proportions.

As the death toll surpassed 50,000 with no sign of abating, the U.S. Agency for International Development added $20 million to an earlier pledge of $15 million to provide relief, and the Pentagon dispatched an aircraft carrier and other military assets to the region. Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, in morning television appearances, chafed at a top U.N. aid official's comment on Monday that wealthy countries were being stingy with aid. "The United States is not stingy," Powell said on CNN.

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Although U.N. Emergency Relief Coordinator Jan Egeland yesterday withdrew his earlier comment, domestic criticism of Bush continued to rise. Skeptics said the initial aid sums -- as well as Bush's decision at first to remain cloistered on his Texas ranch for the Christmas holiday rather than speak in person about the tragedy -- showed scant appreciation for the magnitude of suffering and for the rescue and rebuilding work facing such nations as Sri Lanka, India, Thailand and Indonesia.

After a day of repeated inquiries from reporters about his public absence, Bush late yesterday afternoon announced plans to hold a National Security Council meeting by teleconference to discuss several issues, including the tsunami, followed by a short public statement.

Bush's deepened public involvement puts him more in line with other world figures. In Germany, Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder cut short his vacation and returned to work in Berlin because of the Indian Ocean crisis, which began with a gigantic underwater earthquake. In Britain, the predominant U.S. voice speaking about the disaster was not Bush but former president Bill Clinton, who in an interview with the BBC said the suffering was like something in a "horror movie," and urged a coordinated international response.

Earlier yesterday, White House spokesman Trent Duffy said the president was confident he could monitor events effectively without returning to Washington or making public statements in Crawford, where he spent part of the day clearing brush and bicycling. Explaining the about-face, a White House official said: "The president wanted to be fully briefed on our efforts. He didn't want to make a symbolic statement about 'We feel your pain.' "

Many Bush aides believe Clinton was too quick to head for the cameras to hold forth on tragedies with his trademark empathy. "Actions speak louder than words," a top Bush aide said, describing the president's view of his appropriate role.

Some foreign policy specialists said Bush's actions and words both communicated a lack of urgency about an event that will loom as large in the collective memories of several countries as the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks do in the United States. "When that many human beings die -- at the hands of terrorists or nature -- you've got to show that this matters to you, that you care," said Leslie H. Gelb, president emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations.

There was an international outpouring of support after the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, and even some administration officials familiar with relief efforts said they were surprised that Bush had not appeared personally to comment on the tsunami tragedy. "It's kind of freaky," a senior career official said.

The president of Bread for the World, a leading advocacy group lobbying for more U.S. assistance to suffering people abroad, did not criticize the Bush administration, but did urge the United States to play a central role in the relief effort. "This is a disaster of biblical proportions and one that calls for a global response, with the United States playing a key role," David Beckmann said.

Some of those lost in the carnage were Americans. The State Department, which is in the early stages of estimating both relief needs and the U.S. death toll, has received more than 4,000 inquiries about relatives not yet accounted for, although many may be calls searching for the same people, U.S. officials said.

U.S. officials denied that the overnight aid increase was a response to the U.N. complaint Monday that some countries were "stingy" with aid. Usually only about 10 percent of the final aid tally is given in the initial response to a natural disaster, with the bulk of aid provided after an assessment of long-term needs, according to the State Department.

"We know the needs will be greater. This was a disaster of almost unimaginable dimension, and it's going to require massive support for some time," State Department spokesman J. Adam Ereli said.

Gelb said what appears to be a grudging increase in effort sends the wrong message, at a time when dollar totals matter less than a clear statement about U.S. intentions. Noting that the disaster occurred at a time when large numbers of people in many nations -- especially Muslim ones such as Indonesia -- object to U.S. policies in Iraq, he said Bush was missing an opportunity to demonstrate American benevolence.

"People do watch and see what we do," he said. "Here's an opportunity to remind people of the good we do, and he [Bush] can do it without changing his policy on Iraq or terrorism."

"My initial reaction is that it does not seem to be very aggressive," said Morton Abramowitz, a former ambassador to Thailand who has been active in humanitarian relief efforts, of the administration's response to the tsunami.

Besides USAID assistance, the Pentagon dispatched the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln from Hong Kong to the region, and three Navy P-3 Orion surveillance planes and six Air Force C-130 cargo planes with humanitarian goods are being sent to Thailand.

A regional support center will be established at a military base in Utapao, Thailand, as a staging area for relief flights and for emergency and medical personnel providing assistance throughout the region, the Pentagon announced yesterday. The U.S. Pacific Command will deploy personnel mainly from the III Marine Expeditionary Force to set up the command, control and communication structure.

Retired Gen. Wesley K. Clark, who as the military's top European commander helped supervise NATO's efforts to respond to a 1999 earthquake in Turkey, said the United States has unique military capabilities in reconnaissance and logistics management that can be useful in the current crisis. He urged Bush to take a higher profile. "Natural disasters happen," Clark said. "One of the things people look for is a strong response that illustrates America's humanitarian values."

Rep. Frank R. Wolf (R-Va.), who is frequently outspoken in favor of U.S. humanitarian ventures, said he believes the initial U.S. response has been appropriate, even without a public role for Bush. "I think the world knows we're a very generous people," he said.

Still, the United Nations' Egeland complained on Monday that each of the richest nations gives less than 1 percent of its gross national product for foreign assistance, and many give 0.1 percent. "It is beyond me why we are so stingy, really," he told reporters.

Among the world's two dozen wealthiest countries, the United States often is among the lowest in donors per capita for official development assistance worldwide, even though the totals are larger. According to the Paris-based Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development of 30 wealthy nations, the United States gives the least -- at 0.14 percent of its gross national product, compared with Norway, which gives the most at 0.92 percent.

Staff writer Jim VandeHei in Crawford, Tex., and political researcher Brian Faler in Washington contributed to this report.


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