January 4, 2005

Charitable Diversion?

Yesterday, President Bush announced that predecessors Clinton and Bush would head an effort to raise private funds for tsunami relief in southeast Asia. The three presidents, their entourage, and the press then visited four embassies of southeast Asia nations to express America’s sympathy for the recent natural disaster. This has all been reported matter-of-factly in the press. Am I the only cynic who sees in these actions more blatant self-interest than humanitarian sensitivity?

President Bush had a couple of problems. He had been criticized by former President Clinton, among others, for offering little funding for the tsunami relief effort and for being slow even to do that. (One is reminded of the bewildered Bush reading with a group of toddlers for several minutes after he had learned about the 9/11 attacks on the United States.) Even after the President had increased the U.S. pledge to $350 million, we still found ourselves playing second fiddle to a generous Japan. Bush may well be benevolent by nature, but he faces massive Federal deficits that will be exacerbated by the developing quagmire that is the Iraq war, as well as by the Income Tax and Social Security giveaways that seem even closer to his heart. Spending more billions in southeast Asia wouldn’t help.

The solution, of course, was to pass the buck to the private sector, thereby getting credit for what the American people would do, while keeping the cost off-budget. It is not clear why President Clinton signed on to this project, though perhaps he thought that doing so would enhance his own reputation for selflessness. The American people, even without nagging from past or present presidents, are showing their usual generosity in the wake of the tragedy, and it is not clear that the Clinton-Bush effort will raise substantially more money than would have been raised anyway by existing relief organizations.

As for a gaggle of presidents, advisors, reporters, and photographers invading one’s embassy for a photo op, what ambassador wants that? Wouldn’t a private, personal telephone call from the President communicate more genuine human concern? Such a call could even have been mentioned in a White House press release. Of course, it would have produced no footage on the evening news.