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The U.S. government would be well advised to dedicate itself to alleviating the suffering now taking place as a result of the Tsunami flooding in South and Southeast Asia. This would constitute a much-needed humanitarian gesture and provide support for the dispossessed. It would also constitute a major effort in the struggle to win the war against terrorism.
Indonesia, which has suffered the greatest amount of Tsunami-related damage and the largest loss of life, is also the world's largest Islamic country. It is a secular-oriented democracy, which successfully held its first direct presidential election this year despite three major terrorist bombings - in Bali (2002), the Marriott Hotel in Jakarta (2003) and Australian Embassy (2004). That is exactly the kind of society the U.S. should go out of its way to support. Southern Thailand was also hit hard. It too has a large Muslim population, which in recent months has been subject to substantial social unrest and tension. Malaysia and Bangaldesh, as well as India, Sri Lanka and Myanmar were also affected.
A dramatic initiative to reach out to those effected would generate tremendous good will around the world. Images of U.S. troops, relief agencies and NGOs reaching out with a helping hand could at a minimum prove an effective start to replacing and countering the negative images such as those of the Abu Ghraib prison and others that have caused such damage over the past few years. This would be far more effective than previous public diplomacy efforts such as the failed $15 million "Shared Values" television advertising campaign which sought to portray happy Muslim-Americans to viewers in Islamic countries.
This is not to suggest U.S. authorities are ignoring this disaster. It has been reported the U.S. Pacific Command's Abraham Lincoln aircraft carrier has already sailed from Hong Kong to the Indian Ocean. Naval officials are now seeking to determine how these and other resources can best render assistance to effected countries. Officials from the U.S. Seventh Fleet have also diverted six ships to support efforts in Indonesia, Sri Lanka and Thailand. In addition, the Navy is fielding six P-3 patrol planes to perform reconnaissance operations and the Air Force has committed eight C-130 cargo planes to carry relief supplies.
Recent reports also indicate U.S. Government aid is beginning to flow into the region. In the Indonesian province of Aceh, which has sustained some of the worst damage, UNDP estimates in one coastal city alone, Meulaboh, 40,000 people may have died. Supplies, however, are beginning to pile up at the closest airport due to a lack of transportation. The International Organization for Migration (IOM), which is largely funded by USAID, planned to send 25-30 trucks on December 29 with fuel and other commodities. These trucks will remain in Aceh to assist in distributing supplies. IOM is also planning to send generators by plane. It has also been reported the UN intended to send an assessment team to Aceh on that same day and that 100,000 safe water treatment kits provided by the U.S. government through CARE were believed to be on the same flight.
While these and other efforts now under way are to be applauded, they remain largely unknown. Most media accounts have instead focused on what was perceived as a "miserly" U.S. contribution of $15 million, which was then reluctantly raised by another $20 million. Instead of a perception that this effort is an important U.S. priority, attention has been focused on a statement by an "annoyed" Colin Powell who after hearing a negative comment about the U.S. contribution remarked defensively " The United States has given more aid in the last four years than any other nation or combination of nations in the world".
It may be true that given the sensitivities that exist in many of these countries they would prefer a lower profile response. Admittedly, the U.S. can do little without requests for support from the nations' affected by this tragedy. Furthermore, in the present environment it is not altogether clear how easy it would be for these countries, especially those with predominantly Muslim populations, to receive overt U.S. support -- especially if it is provided by the U.S. military. That in a sense might explain the hesitancy expressed in recent media reports by the U.S. Armed Forces as to how all the resources that are now being sent into the Indian Ocean will be utilized.
For this reason it is especially important for U.S. leaders to be seen as strong supporters of this effort, rather than as reluctant contributors who are participating almost as an afterthought. President Bush, Secretary's Powell and Rumsfeld and other administration officials should therefore consider the need not only to make the provision of relief support an important policy priority, but also to follow up this up with public pronouncements of why this is so.
To do so is likely to pay immense dividends. In addition to improving the efficiency of these efforts, this will also deliver a strong message that U.S. foreign policy is not restricted to unilateral military intervention. The portrayal of these positive images will not only help in our efforts to win over the "hearts and minds" needed to reduce terrorism. It will also illustrate how a mature, advance democracy responds to a global crisis and that Americans are a caring people. It is time to begin changing the perception of America as the "Great Satan" that exists in much of the Muslim world today.