A U.S. Marine helicopter lands in tsunami-ravaged Calang, in Aceh province, Indonesia.

How quickly did
America really respond?

TOKYO » Now that a month has passed since the tragic earthquake and tsunami that wreaked widespread devastation across South and Southeast Asia, it is time to separate fact from fiction regarding the timeliness, level and intention of U.S. relief efforts.

I have been frequently asked the following question: "Can the U.S. relief effort, despite its slow and too modest start, somehow improve America's image in Asia in general and among Muslims in particular?" The question incorporates many of the fictions that need to be addressed.

» Critics questioned the timeliness of Washington's response. It was three days after the tragedy before President Bush held a press conference from Crawford, Texas, to personally express his nation's concern about the tragedy and to pledge American support. But this does not mean that nothing was being done before that; far to the contrary. American ambassadors in the stricken countries immediately offered assistance and set about assessing the damage. U.S. ships were given orders to begin deploying to the region within a day of the tragedy -- well before the extent of devastation was clear or any government had officially requested their assistance -- in order to be there if and when called upon. This, despite the fact that U.S. military forces are severely overextended and many had seen recent duty in Iraq.

The troops -- some on much-needed holiday leave -- eagerly came to the rescue. Within two weeks of the tragedy, more than 14,000 U.S. service personnel were on the scene, along with 25 shipsâ including a carrier battle group, a Marine amphibious group and the Navy hospital ship Mercy. In addition, about 90 aircraft responded, including more than 50 vitally needed helicopters. This rapid, sustained response, which is costing the Defense Department more than $5 million a day, is unprecedented.

Unfortunately, the fact that President Bush waited until Dec. 29 to express America's sympathy and support seemed somehow more important to the critics than the continuing effort by the U.S. government and by Americans in general to help those most in need.

» Was the initial announced donation too modest? Yes, if you base it on what we know now. But the initial pledge of $15 million, which was quickly increased to $35 million, was made when news reports were still talking about casualties in the thousands. The initial report in the Honolulu press talked about "at least 700 people" being killed by the tsunami; a week later it was "as many as 40,000-50,000 casualties." The number now exceeds 170,000 and continues to climb.

As the extent of the tragedy became clearer, American aid increased. The U.S. government's subsequent pledge of $350 million in relief assistance, while extremely generous, tells only part of the story. It does not include the Pentagon's $5 million a day in expenses (not to mention manpower and equipment costs). Neither does it include U.S. private and corporate contributions now estimated at $580 million and expected to reach $700 million, thanks to the efforts of a private charity drive spearheaded by former former presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton. The Honolulu-based East-West Center alone raised nearly $340,000 and continues to funnel money to grassroots relief efforts in several stricken countries. Washington, along with Tokyo, also has offered to help develop a regional tsunami warning system to minimize the impact of future disasters.

As U.S. troops landed in South Asia to deliver aid, rumors immediately spread that the United States intended to use the relief effort to gain a foothold there. But an interesting thing happened when the Indonesian government announced that all foreign troops would have to leave by March 26.

Washington immediately agreed, but other countries said "stay!" Indonesian officials soon revised their statement, calling the deadline a "benchmark" for Indonesia to take over administering aid.

» Will the U.S. relief effort help Washington's image in Asia and the Muslim world? Hopefully it will, but those who routinely find fault with Washington will no doubt continue to stress the negatives here as well.

But the broader point should not be missed: Americans responded with open hearts and with open wallets -- at the governmental, corporate, NGO and individual level -- not because it was demanded or would somehow buy future good will, but because that's what Americans do when tragedy strikes, at home or abroad.

The primary motive was, and remains, humanitarian, not public relations. To reinforce this point, one need only return to the scene of the devastation one month later. Most of the media crews are gone; the news story has largely run its course. Meanwhile, U.S. troops and NGOs are still on the scene. More than 11,000 troops remain committed to relief efforts, including 2,600 on the ground, operating 15 ships and 60-plus aircraft, delivering a staggering 6 million pounds of relief supplies and almost 20 million pounds of supplies and equipment to stricken areas.

Too little, too late? I don't think so.

Ralph A. Cossa is president of the Pacific Forum CSIS, a Honolulu-based nonprofit research institute, and senior editor of Comparative Connections.

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