President Bush recruited two former presidents yesterday to lead what he called a "massive private relief effort" to help Asian and African nations devastated by last month's tsunami as U.S. military forces converged on the region with supplies, equipment and personnel.
In tapping his father, George H.W. Bush, and his immediate predecessor, Bill Clinton, the president hoped to demonstrate commitment to alleviating the widespread suffering after complaints that his initial response appeared slow and inadequate. In his first full day back in Washington after the holidays, he then visited embassies of the four hardest-hit countries to express condolences.
Bush offered no additional government aid beyond the $350 million already pledged, and Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, who is touring the damage zone with Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, the president's brother, said no more money would be needed in the immediate future. With more than $2 billion in pledges from countries around the world, the United Nations said it had enough to meet current needs, but officials worried that countries would not follow through on their commitments.
The more immediate challenge, according to U.S. and U.N. officials and private relief organizations, is finding ways to coordinate the aid now available and get it to remote, hard-hit places, particularly in Indonesia. With the official death toll at about 139,000 -- U.N. officials believe the total may be as high as 150,000 -- authorities estimated that more than 1 million people have been left homeless and as many as 5 million have been deprived of food or water, threatened by disease, or affected in other ways.
With more than 14,000 U.S. sailors and Marines, the military relief effort was quickly adding up to an endeavor unlike any other humanitarian campaign ever conducted, according to Pentagon officials. Waves of Air Force C-130, C-17 and C-5 transport planes had delivered 430,000 pounds of supplies as of yesterday morning, officials said, and 25 ships were en route or already in the region to help.
Heavy-lift helicopters were flying 24 hours a day from the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln to deliver supplies to the ravaged Indonesian island of Sumatra. Another cluster of ships led by the helicopter carrier USS Bonhomme Richard was racing to Sri Lanka, and Pentagon officials said they may dispatch the hospital ship USNS Mercy outfitted with 250 beds, although it would take a month to sail from San Diego.
Civilian and military officials took pains to describe their efforts as commensurate to the scale of the catastrophe and to reject any suggestions that the United States dawdled in the days immediately after the Dec. 26 undersea earthquake that set loose torrents of killer waters from Thailand to Somalia.
"It was instantaneous, and I would call it massive," Brig. Gen. John Allen, a top Pentagon official, said of the U.S. response. "And it is probably one of the largest military operations in support of humanitarian assistance or disaster relief that we have mounted in many, many years."
Bush came under fire for the size of the initial $15 million U.S. commitment to relief efforts and for waiting three days after the tsunami to break off his vacation and appear in public expressing his concern for the victims. Since then, he has increased the U.S. contribution to $350 million, dispatched his brother to the region and now pulled his father out of retirement.
"We're showing the compassion of our nation in the swift response," Bush said at the White House, flanked by the two former presidents. "But the greatest source of America's generosity is not our government. It's the good heart of the American people."
As co-chairmen of the new private fundraising effort, Clinton and George H.W. Bush will embark on a campaign of media appearances, trips around the country and phone calls to longtime supporters asking Americans to contribute to relief organizations. A Clinton spokesman said the former president was considering his own effort when he received a call from the White House late last week asking him to join the Bush campaign. The senior Bush stayed over Sunday night at the White House discussing it with his son, according to the White House.
In promoting private efforts, the president may have implicitly acknowledged the limits of government funding available, having already tapped virtually the entire budget for international disaster relief.
His father denied that the announcement was intended as diplomatic damage control for the president's slow public response. "That's not what this is about," the elder Bush said on CNN. "It's about saving lives. It's about caring, and the president cares."
Disaster relief groups welcomed the announcement with one caveat: as long as private funds are not substituted for U.S. government contributions. "If there is a new trend afoot to privatize this kind of assistance, we would oppose it," said Michael Wiest, chief operating officer for Catholic Relief Services. "But I'm going to take it at face value -- that it is a good thing."
The American public has already responded with an extraordinary outpouring of donations. Wiest said only three foreign disasters have prompted such a powerful public response: Hurricane Mitch in Central America in 1998, the war in Kosovo and the Ethiopian famine of 1984-85.
Although hard figures were not available, the Ethiopian famine is generally believed to have drawn the most private donations, according to Mary McClymont, president of InterAction, a consortium of 160 U.S. humanitarian groups. But the tsunami effort, she said, may well surpass it. "This appears to be an unprecedented level of giving by the American public," she said. "I think it is a very important message to the rest of the world."
Some groups may even be reaching a saturation point. Doctors Without Borders asked donors Sunday to stop sending money for tsunami relief. Kris Torgeson, a spokeswoman for the group, said it received more than $50 million in eight days, including $20 million from U.S. contributors. "Once we saw the amount of funds that we were receiving . . . we didn't want them to outpace our actual needs," Torgeson said.
Jan Egeland, the U.N. emergency relief coordinator, said private contributions were matching governmental donations and expressed appreciation for Bush's new effort. He said a representative of Citigroup, which pledged $3 million last week, told him the company could "mobilize potentially thousands" of people to help as well.
The difficulty at this stage, he said, is more logistical than financial. "Our problem is to be able to respond to the hundreds and the thousands" of offers of help, he said. "I get a lot of e-mail from people who say, 'I'm an ex-aid worker, I want to go' or 'I am a helicopter pilot -- can I bring my helicopter?' "
But U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan, who planned to fly last night to Jakarta for an international donors conference on Thursday, voiced concern that the initial wave of generosity might not last, citing unmet commitments by governments to previous natural disasters such as the December 2003 earthquake in Bam, Iran. "We've got over $2 billion," he said, "but it is quite likely that at the end of the day we will not receive all of it."
Staff writers Colum Lynch at the United Nations and Jacqueline Salmon and Bradley Graham in Washington contributed to this report.