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Mary McGrory

What About This Crisis?

By Mary McGrory
Thursday, January 16, 2003; Page A19

Rep. Frank R. Wolf (R-Va.), the premier calamity collector of the House of Representatives, is just back from a country we'd rather not think about, and telling us things we'd rather not know. As usual, he is demanding that attention be paid.

This time it's the famine in Ethiopia, one of those loser countries where Wolf feels most at home. He's warning Congress and the White House of the urgency of the situation and the prospect that millions of Ethiopians will die if help is not on its way soon.

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To Wolf, the Ethiopian famine is an "opportunity" for George W. Bush. "I think he really cares about these things and wants to do the right thing," he says. He must use the bully pulpit to rally people and increase our aid to set an example to the world.

Wolf requested an appointment to tell the president what he saw in Ethiopia and to show him a harrowing video of dull-eyed children with bloated bellies balanced on matchstick legs and desperate mothers who can't nurse their miserable babies. He wanted to urge Bush to consider that Ethiopia's cupboard will be totally bare by March unless the world digs down for money and food for the dying. One Saturday morning broadcast from the Oval Office would be enough to turn the tide. The faith-based agency that Bush insisted on installing in the Agency for International Development (AID) should serve as a clearinghouse.

Wolf never heard back on his request.

But Wolf is quite right. Bush should welcome a chance to form a coalition that would rain down grain instead of Hellfire missiles on a small, poor country. He could refurbish his humanitarian credentials, which have gotten badly dented in several weeks of war-seeking rhetoric that devoured half his "compassionate conservative" mantra. Sneering Europeans would respect the effort.

For the first time since his phenomenal rise in the polls after 9/11, Bush's numbers have declined. Doubts have set in. The cocky, swaggering, Old West lingo was just right when the country was shaken to the roots by the slaughter at the twin towers. But in the North Korean non-crisis, attitude was not enough. Bush -- who apparently thought Kim Jong Il would be respectful of his November victory at the polls -- spun around in complete circles, vowing never to talk, never to negotiate, never to do what Clinton did. Then he had to get his information from the Democratic governor of New Mexico, Bill Richardson, Clinton's U.N. ambassador, who was sought out by two North Korean diplomats.

The country may have been cowering at the specter of a North Korean roadside stand where nuclear weapons would be sold to the world's madmen, but all Bush could manage was a petulant statement that he was "sick and tired" of Saddam Hussein.

The public, or at least those polled by Gallup, didn't think much of his economic medicine -- his "jobs and growth" plan to fatten fat cats. Democrats are calling it the "Leave No Millionaires Behind" program.

To demonstrate again its opinion of the worthlessness of Democratic senators, the White House canceled a promised North Korea briefing by Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage and Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz -- it said it was short of briefers. Democratic leader Tom Daschle then announced that Bill Richardson would brief the Democrats. The White House said Armitage would be available after all.

This all seems rather small in light of what is happening in Ethiopia, and what could happen in Iraq or in North Korea if Kim Jong Il opens his Wal-Mart for weapons of mass destruction. Chief Andrew Natsios of AID is visiting the stricken country and its prime minister, Meles Zenawi, his friend of 20 years.

Meles, who helped bring Ethiopia's savage war with its Eritrean neighbors to a cease-fire, is pro-American; there is no suspicion, as in other African countries, that food aid is being used as a weapon, no issue of genetically modified grain. But if the world doesn't snap to and increase its contributions, Wolf predicts that by Easter, "thousands of Ethiopians could be dead from starvation."

In his unabashedly evangelical style, Wolf asks, if these were Norwegian children, "wouldn't the world be rushing to help?" Wolf wants the born-again Christian in the White House to put that question to the world.

Now that he's on the brink of violating the basic principle of his reign -- the ABCDs of his political doctrine (Anything But what Clinton Did) -- Bush might be more amenable to asking the question. It's better than being asked why he's following in Clinton's footsteps in North Korea.

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