The influx of U.S. aid to earthquake-ravaged Pakistan -- signified by yesterday's unscheduled stop in Islamabad by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice -- could have an important side benefit: improving the battered U.S. image in a critical Muslim country.
U.S. officials are quick to say that the rapid reaction to the earthquake that has killed 20,000 to 40,000 people is largely due to humanitarian considerations -- as well as to a desire to reward the Pakistani president, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, for his support of U.S. interests despite two assassination attempts.
"Musharraf is a friend and hero in our eyes," said one senior U.S. official, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss the issue more freely. "There is a clear and unmistakable signal being sent that we help our friends."
Stability in Pakistan, the only Islamic country with a nuclear weapon and the most crucial ally in tracking the elusive al Qaeda leadership, is critical to U.S. interests in South Asia.
The official, noting that U.S. aid is also flowing to Central America after the devastating floods there, said that the administration is not acting to "curry favor with hostile Muslim populations." But, he added, "if there is a positive impact for the United States, so much the better."
As another U.S. official put it: "If this helps us show that Abu Ghraib is not reflective of the American character, that would be good."
Rice, who is on a tour of Central Asia and Afghanistan, held talks with Musharraf and Pakistani Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz during her two-hour stop. The Bush administration is assembling a task force to examine what more can be done to stabilize Pakistan down the road, she told reporters traveling with her.
"The devastation is quite extraordinary," Rice said, adding that the initial $50 million in U.S. aid will be followed by more assistance in the coming months. "The international community will have to be mobilized to help with ongoing rescue efforts, as well as the long-term recovery and reconstruction."
The model for using a humanitarian disaster to leverage public opinion is the Indian Ocean tsunami relief effort earlier this year. Though the administration was criticized for an initially slow response to that disaster -- which killed more than 200,000 people -- the U.S. government has now committed nearly $1 billion, with private donations topping that.
Polling has indicated that the U.S. tsunami effort -- which included sending a fleet of ships and providing round-the-clock helicopter rescues -- has paid dividends to the United States' image in Indonesia, the world's most populous Muslim country.
A survey of 1,200 Indonesians one month after the tsunami, sponsored by Terror Free Tomorrow and conducted by a leading Indonesian pollster, found that, for the first time, more Indonesians (40 percent) supported the U.S. terrorism fight than opposed it (36 percent). Sixty-five percent of those surveyed had a more favorable impression of the United States, with support strongest among those younger than 30, while support for Osama bin Laden dropped from 58 percent before the tsunami to 23 percent. Terror Free Tomorrow is a nonpartisan group that studies popular support for global terrorism.
Husain Haqqani, director of the Center for International Relations at Boston University and an adviser to Terror Free Tomorrow, said the experience in Indonesia could easily be replicated in Pakistan. Haqqani, a former adviser to several Pakistani political leaders, said that anti-American Islamic groups have begun to realize this and have opposed the U.S. aid because "this may take the wind out of their sails."
But Haqqani said the U.S. effort to prop up Musharraf with the relief effort is unlikely to succeed. He said hard questions are already being asked about the faltering response of the Pakistani military, which Musharraf controls. Moreover, he said, much of the $1 billion in annual U.S. aid that Pakistan receives is perceived as going toward buying F-16 fighter planes and toward supporting the state, not the common people.
"The man in the street has not been the beneficiary of the U.S. aid" in the past, so credit for the disaster relief will flow to the United States, not to Musharraf for fostering good relations with Washington, Haqqani said.
The U.S. government has so far provided eight helicopters -- and appears on track to provide 30 more -- and three field hospitals, one official said. Rice said she will take Pakistan's earthquake assistance requests to Europe at week's end to help coordinate Western relief. She will hold talks with the British and French governments between Friday and Sunday. Britain holds the rotating presidency of the European Union.
Wright reported from Islamabad, Pakistan.