January 10, 2005

BANGKOK – The Kwaktiutl native people of British Columbia used to hold a ceremony called a `potlatch’ to decide who was the biggest man in the tribe. The person who gave away the most gifts was the winner.

This week in Jakarta, the world’s leading nations competed in a gigantic potlatch to see who could give the most money to help victims of the deadly 26 December tsunami that ravaged southern Asia’s coasts and islands. The total aid promised following these meetings is $3 billion.

As of this writing, Australia leads with a whopping US $764 million, followed by Germany with $664m, Japan $500m, the US $350m, Norway $183, France $103, and so on down to the Arab oil states who collectively anted up a measly $42m, the cost of a heavy night of roulette at Monaco’s Grand Casino.

Politicians everywhere – particularly in Scandinavia and Germany, which lost many citizens – are scared of emotional voters demanding action after seeing the tsunami catastrophe on TV. Untelevised disasters, like the 1970 cyclone that killed hundreds of thousands in Bangladesh, or 2 million malaria deaths annually, go unremarked.

Money for the half million tsunami survivors is not the primary problem. What’s really needed is efficient aid distribution in the worst hit areas of Indonesia and Sri Lanka. As in many past disasters, mountains of supplies are piling up, rotting in the heat and being stolen or sold.

Thailand is already patching up hard-hit Phuket and other Andaman Sea resorts. Tourists are pouring into this nation’s splendid, well-run resorts.

India, prickly as ever, refused all foreign aid. Its military is ably handling disaster relief. But Sri Lanka and Indonesia’s Aceh region, both rent by civil wars, remain desperately in need of high-tech foreign logistic support.

Having felt shame over the brutal colonial war in Iraq, this writer was filled once again with pride in America as the carrier USS `Abraham Lincoln’ and the Marines raced to the rescue in Aceh and Sri Lanka. I was particularly elated to see the `Lincoln’ in action. I sailed aboard her and hold honorary carrier aviator’s wings for landing and taking off from this great warship.

Thailand’s Ubon air base, from which B-52’s and F-105 Thunderchiefs once bombed North Vietnam, is the US nerve center coordinating the rescue mission. Americans remain the world’s grand masters at mass logistics, the key to their victory in World War II.

This Asian mission of mercy, not the sordid oil war in Iraq, is what the United States is all about.

President George Bush, with his uncanny knack for blundering abroad, took three days to even comment on the tsunami. His initial offer of a paltry $15 million in aid provoked outrage across Asia. US forces in Iraq spend more than that before breakfast.

Washington’s hamhanded attempt to cut the UN out of the rescue effort by forming a separate aid group has also provoked anger and dismay across the globe. This is no time for the politics of revenge.

Shamed by world condemnation, Washington, which has $18 billion in its Iraq war budget, finally upped the ante. But even at $350m(not including its naval contribution), US aid is still only half of Canada’s generosity on a per capita basis. China, which aspires to world power, offered only $60m, less than tiny Denmark.

Whether the bigger US contribution will lessen Muslim hostility to US policies, as Washington hopes, remains to be seen. India openly voiced concerns heard in Asia that US intervention will be used to establish a permanent military presence in this strategic region, which both Delhi and Beijing see as their sphere of influence.

While human suffering here has been biblical, the economic effects of the tsunami on the region will be limited. Recovery in most places is well under way. The disaster may intensify Aceh’s half century old independence struggle from Indonesian rule, and do little to lessen tensions in war-torn Sri Lanka.

But, political cynicism aside, it’s still encouraging to see the world react in a heartfelt and civilized manner. Too bad it takes a natural catastrophe to bring this out. Time now to begin preparing for the next calamity.
Copyright Eric S. Margolis 2005

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