By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
In America, anyway, these foreignleaders took less public abuse than President Bush, whose response to the catastrophe was actually less cold than shockingly clueless. Within hours of the tsunami, everybody I knew was talking about how these terrible events could be parlayed into a PR bonanza for the U.S. Surely the administration would capitalize on this unhappy chance to show the world, especially the Muslim world, that we will use our enormous resources to save lives, especially Muslim lives. After all, this was a White House communications team so brilliant that it framed Dubya’s head next to Mount Rushmore during a speech in South Dakota and transformed his stumbling inability to discuss the Iraq occupation into proof of steely resolve.
But evidently Karl Rove’s genius at image--making doesn’t travel beyond the U.S. border, nor is the Bush administration as good at seeming generous as at talking tough. (When Undersecretary of State John Bolton was asked about a possible -carrot-and-stick approach to Iran, he memorably replied, "I don’t do carrots.") The vacationing Bush didn’t show up to offer condolences for 72 hours, the administration’s initial offer of $15 million in relief was embarrassingly paltry (Bush’s inauguration will cost $40 million), and Colin "What have I done to deserve this?" Powell spent his final days at State defending the U.S. against U.N. official Jan Egeland’s charge that the Western nations were being "stingy." By the time it finally got into gear, the White House was behind the PR curve. Indeed, at a time when oil-rich Arab nations were doing shamefully little to help their fellow Muslims, it was America that appeared shamed into generosity.
And maybe we were. Possibly because we see so much suffering on our TV screens, it’s become a national delusion that America is singularly benevolent in doling out foreign aid. More than half the country thinks we give nearly a quarter of our GNP to help other, less prosperous countries. In fact, we are amazingly cheap: We actually give less than one-half of one percent of our GNP. (They also skimp in France and Britain, whose sanctimony about America becomes nauseating once you see the figures.) Although every single American has spent $531 for the war in Iraq, he or she gives a mere $73 a year through the government in foreign aid. And lest we think this, like everything wicked, is George W. Bush’s fault, it’s worth noting that he actually pushed through the biggest increase in foreign aid since JFK.
Sadly, we are no more generous as private citizens. The U.S. is the most prosperous country in history. Even those on our welfare rolls enjoy a standard of living many times higher than the average worker in Meulaboh, the western Sumatra city where nearly half of its 50,000 residents were killed by the tidal wave. Although our wealth and their poverty are connected, the average American gives only slightly more than $17 a year to foreign aid (the average Frenchman only $3!). And when you consider that moguls like Bill Gates boost the per capita average by giving away, oh, $5 billion or so a year, that means the rest of us are giving only three or four bucks — frappuccino money! — to fight the hunger, disease and dehumanizing nullity that menace billions like an invisible tsunami.
Although our newscasts now ring with encouraging tales of international aid for the tidal wave’s victims — on Monday, the two Bushes and Bill Clinton stood together like the Three Tenors — it would be even more heartening if it didn’t take nature’s capricious cruelty to make us share our bounty with those who spend their days on the cusp of death and disaster. After all, just because the universe is arbitrary and unfair, that doesn’t mean we ought to follow its lead.