Thursday, December 30, 2004

The water and the woe

It never fails. Right at the end of the year -- when your mindset is on turning a corner, on ending one year and embracing the possibilities of a new one just ahead -- something happens. There's always some event that acts as a year's symbolic valedictory, in a relative instant putting the preceding 364 days into stark perspective.

The year 2004 is no exception. We got our curtain closing all right. But it wasn't a single death; it wasn't the passing of actor Jerry Orbach, a mainstay of the "Law & Order" TV franchise fast becoming the 31 flavors of TV law enforcement. It wasn't the passing of the self-styled bandleader Artie Shaw, who died today at the age of 94, 44 years after putting his clarinet down for the last time.

What emphatically closed the door on 2004 happened half a world away, in South Asia, in the Indian Ocean, the day after Christmas. That was the day a great seismic event -- an earthquake on or near the floor of the Indian Ocean -- rippled its way to the surface, creating a tsunami, a killer wave that inundated the beaches and shores of a dozen countries and killed about 117,000 people in four of them.

Yes, no typo. One hundred and seventeen thousand people -- a figure that, owing to the still-developing process of rescue and recovery, is certain to change again and again, as it has for the preceding ninety-six hours. Sri Lanka, Indonesia, India and Thailand are the four most dramatically impacted by the tsunami; the fatalities in Indonesia alone may top 85,000 people.

The big question is how the world will respond. Already, the usual aid organizations are stepping up to the plate. Doctors Without Borders, the Red Cross, Americares and others are sending people over to the affected regions, and private donations will also come forward.

It will be curious to watch the full impact of the United States' reaction. Already under fire for being slow to offer a basic humanitarian response, the Bush administration has so far extended aid to the affected region totaling $35 million, an amount that, even without knowing the extent of the damage, seems awfully cheap and a relative pittance given the scope of the destruction. This is a surmise, but the catering budget for special events at the White House must be bigger than that.

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The United States may have missed the boat on capitalizing on the situation from a purely humanitarian perspective, since there was no spontaneous stepping up to the plate in the spirit of the Berlin airlift. What also remains to be seen is how the U.S. benignly exploits the crisis from a geopolitical perspective. It can't have totally escaped the policy boys at the White House that Indonesia, the fourth-largest Muslim nation in the world, might be favorably susceptible to hearts-and-minds-style diplomacy -- the right kind of boots on the ground, with people bringing food and water rather than guns and soldiers -- the kind of training diet the United States has imposed on Iraq since March 2003.

It's hard to know at this juncture, with the contours of this natural tragedy still developing. But depending on how the United States responds, the tsunami could be the biggest opportunity yet to break the emotional back of the anti-American Islamic insurgency -- the foundation for al-Qaida support across the Muslim world. By making the right effort, maintaining the right profile, the United States could show the world -- not just the Muslim world -- that it hasn't forgotten how to come to the rescue, how to be that storied "city on a hill" Americans like to think their country still is.

It's anyone's guess as to which America will show up for this crisis: the America content to bristle with weapons and warnings, or the country represented internationally by Colin Powell, the one that prefers dialogue to destruction, the one that could lead the world in rebuilding South Asia's paradise, restoring at least some of America's good name in the process.

Whichever America does show up will need to be a presence on the ground for the truly long haul. Reconstruction in the region will certainly take months, and likely even years, and the economies in the region -- Indonesia is the world's fourth-largest coffee producer, Sir Lanka is the world's third-largest tea producer -- will probably need as much help as the people regaining their footing.

In 1948 the United States truly proved its might to the world with an altruistic action that cemented the image of America as a beacon for the world at large. That year the Berlin Airlift proved that the United States could step up to a challenge that didn't involve arms and weapons and getting people killed. That year this nation lived up to its charter and its loftiest values.

Here's hoping we can do it again. The stakes could not be higher.

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