How Could This Be Happening in the United States?

By Kevin Sullivan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, September 4, 2005

LONDON, Sept. 3 -- People around the world cannot believe what they're seeing.

From Argentina to Zimbabwe, front-page photos of the dead and desperate in New Orleans, almost all of them poor and black, have sickened them and shaken assumptions about American might. How can this be happening, they ask, in a nation whose wealth and power seem almost supernatural in so many struggling corners of the world?

Pick the comparison: New Orleans looks like Haiti, or Baghdad, or Sudan, Bangladesh or Sri Lanka. The images of all the rubble and corpses and empty-eyed survivors remind people of those places, not the United States.

"Third World America," declared the headline in the Daily Mail in London on Saturday. "Law and order is gone, gunmen roam at will, raping and looting, and as people die of heat and thirst, bodies lie rotting in the street. Until now, such a hellish vista could only be imagined in a Third World disaster zone. But this was America yesterday."

International reaction has shifted in many cases from shock, sympathy and generosity to a growing criticism of the Bush administration's response to the catastrophe of Hurricane Katrina. In nations often divided by dueling sentiments of admiration and distaste for the United States, many people see at best incompetence and at worst racism in the chaos gripping much of the Gulf Coast. Many analysts said President Bush's focus on Iraq had left the United States without resources to handle natural disasters, and many said Hurricane Katrina's fury mocked Bush's opposition to international efforts to confront global warming, which some experts say contributes to the severity of such storms.

More than 50 countries and a number of international organizations have offered aid and technical assistance. In Washington, the State Department has not accepted the help, but said it was analyzing needs. Some nations have made contributions directly to the American Red Cross.

South African President Thabo Mbeki said those affected "remain in the hearts and prayers of the people of South Africa." French President Jacques Chirac, one of Europe's most outspoken critics of Bush, dispatched a handwritten note to the White House expressing his "deep distress." French, Italian, German, Russian and Chinese officials have offered millions of dollars in aid.

The leaders of Cuba and Venezuela, both at odds with the United States, pledged support. Cuban President Fidel Castro offered to send 1,100 doctors, each carrying emergency medical supplies amounting to tons of relief aid. Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez offered to send fuel, humanitarian aid and relief workers to the disaster area. Venezuela is one of the largest suppliers of oil to the United States.

In a remarkable role reversal, some of the world's poorest developing nations are offering help. El Salvador offered to send soldiers to help restore order, and offers of aid have come from Bosnia, Kosovo and Belarus. The former Soviet republic of Georgia has donated $50,000 to the Red Cross, and beleaguered Sri Lanka, which has received $133 million in tsunami relief from the United States, has donated $25,000 to the Red Cross. In Beijing, Rep. Tom Lantos (D-Calif.) and Rep. Jim Leach (R-Iowa), just back from Pyongyang, the North Korean capital, said officials there went out of their way to express their sympathy.

Beyond the goodwill, much of the reaction has been harshly critical of the U.S. response and of Bush, who remains unpopular in many places outside the United States, largely over the war in Iraq. The Independent newspaper in London carried front-page headlines on Saturday that read, "Where was the President in his country's hour of need? And why has it taken him five days to go to New Orleans?" The paper also asked, "How can the US take Iraq, a country of 25 million people, in three weeks but fail to rescue 25,000 of its own citizens from a sports arena in a big American city?"

One Iraqi newspaper reported about the hurricane without editorial comment. The Arab news network al-Jazeera showed footage of relief aid and reported on Bush sending troops to the area. Iraqis are aware of pressure in the United States for soldiers to return home.

For the French, who feel greater historical, cultural, linguistic and emotional ties to New Orleans than perhaps any other American city, the daily front-page images have been gut-wrenching. "The rage of the forgotten" declared the headline of Saturday's editions of Liberation newspaper beside a photograph of a young woman on her knees, screaming in despair. Saturday's lead editorial in Le Figaro questioned how the U.S. military could have been so quick to arrive in South Asia for the tsunami, yet "wasn't able to do the same within its own borders."

Israel's most watched television news program, Channel 2 news, on Friday broadcast extensive footage from New Orleans showing uncovered corpses with commentary saying that no one was tending to the dead. The program also aired a video clip of Bush searching for words, before saying he was dissatisfied with the government's response. The newscaster's narration suggested the Bush administration had placed a higher priority on ensuring a steady flow of gasoline than on saving lives.

On Chinese Web sites, which have covered the disaster closely, several postings contrasted the Chinese army's relief role in recent floods and earthquakes with the U.S. response in New Orleans. "Hundreds of thousands of . . . soldiers were sent to those places to help local residents, and they really did a good job," one posting said. "But the United States, a superpower, only sent several thousand soldiers to help. What a shame!"

In other countries, commentators have linked Katrina to the dangers of global warming, and Bush's opposition to the Kyoto protocol on climate change. "This horror is the worst possible way of realizing how important climate change is," Marcelo Cantelmi wrote in an Aug. 31 editorial in the Clarin newspaper in Buenos Aires. German Environment Minister Juergen Trittin wrote in an article this week that Katrina should be a wake-up call to the Bush administration to change its policies on global warming.

Others said the looting and chaos in New Orleans reflected a culture of violence in the United States. The English-language Times of India on Saturday published a quote from Sajeewa Chinthaka, a 36-year-old from Sri Lanka, where the tsunami killed more than 30,000: "It's disgusting. Not a single tourist caught in the tsunami was mugged. We can easily see where the civilized part of the world's population is."

The issue of race underlies much of the global dismay over the situation in New Orleans. The United States is seen as a land of opportunity for some, with less for people of color. Every year, hundreds of thousands of Mexicans sneak into the United States for work, while in Mexico, human rights groups blast the treatment of Hispanics in the United States. African refugees flee war and famine and find new lives in the United States, but they also find a society where minorities are disproportionately the poorest.

The issue has resonated in East African countries such as Uganda, Tanzania and Kenya, where newspaper columnists and radio personalities have blasted the U.S. government for its slow aid to victims. Among the victims are a "disproportionately high number of visibly impoverished blacks," wrote Ambrose Murgunga on Saturday in Kenya's Daily Nation newspaper.

In Pakistan, the English-language newspaper the Nation wrote in an editorial Saturday that the U.S. government "for three days sat smugly apathetic to the people's plight," noting that the largely black victims highlighted "the inequality of wealth that continues to mark the U.S. racial divide till this day."

In Turkey, columnist Sami Kohen wrote in Friday's Milliyet newspaper the looting "showed 'the other face' of USA. It became clear that the number of poor and unemployed people is seriously high and their problems had been ignored."

In the Daily Mail of London on Saturday, columnist Anthony Holden said his affection for the United States had always been tempered by its "me-first" attitude. He said the largely poor and black victims of Hurricane Katrina showed that while prosperity had come to some American blacks and other minorities, many more had been left behind.

"Rarely," he wrote, "has such lurid evidence of the darker side of the American dream been so brutally exposed."

Correspondents John Lancaster in New Delhi, Scott Wilson in Jerusalem, Craig Timberg in Johannesburg, Monte Reel in Buenos Aires, Molly Moore in Paris, Emily Wax in Nairobi, Anthony Faiola in Tokyo, Edward Cody and Philip P. Pan in Beijing, Ellen Nakashima and Alan Sipress in Jakarta, Indonesia, Peter Finn in Moscow, N.C. Aizenman in Islamabad, Pakistan, Craig Whitlock in Berlin, Karl Vick in Istanbul, staff writer Mary Beth Sheridan in Washington and special correspondent Omar Fekeiki in Baghdad contributed to this report.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company