What Political Dividend?

Will the United States earn a political dividend for its relief efforts for victims of the South Asian tsunami? Don't count on it.

When President Bush spoke publicly about the disaster on December 29, three days after it happened, he pledged "an initial $35 million in relief assistance." Jan Egeland, the United Nations' emergency relief coordinator, had already criticized the response from the United States and other rich countries. "If actually the foreign assistance of many countries now is 0.1 or 0.2 percent of their gross national income, I think that is stingy, really," Egeland had asserted on December 27. His criticism clearly irritated Bush, who said, "I felt like the person who made that statement was very misguided and ill-informed."

Mohammed Alami, the chief Washington correspondent for Al Jazeera television, described his audience's reaction to the American response. "A lot of people couldn't understand the initial hesitation of this administration to react to the disaster," Alami said, "especially with the image problem the U.S. has in the area and around the world."

Bush acted quickly to recover, however. He came up with 10 times more money. He sent two emissaries—one a respected world figure and the other someone with guaranteed access to the president. "Secretary [of State Colin] Powell and [Florida] Governor [Jeb] Bush will report their findings directly to me," the president announced on January 3. And he recruited former Presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton to lead the private U.S. fundraising effort. Both have a more favorable image in the world than he does.

The United States is ready to do even more. Powell said in Jakarta on January 6, "We will continue responding to legitimate demands until $350 [million] is reached, and if more money is needed at that time, then the president will take it under consideration and discuss it with the Congress."

The critics changed their tune. "I'd like to say that the United States has been ideal in the way they have responded," Egeland said on January 2. Criticism has now shifted to other wealthy countries. As Al Jazeera's Alami noted, "In the Arab media—and we reflect that—a lot of people are criticizing Arab and Muslim governments for not doing enough." Saudi Arabia has pledged $30 million and Qatar $25 million—far below the amounts promised by Australia ($810 million), Germany ($674 million), Japan ($500 million), and the United States. Salameh Nematt, Washington bureau chief for the pan-Arab newspaper Al Hayat, said, "Some Arab countries are doing something, trying to help.... But yes, there's a sense that they're not doing much."

Perhaps most remarkable has been the absence of criticism from radical Islamic organization about the presence of additional U.S. forces on Muslim soil. The radicals are even trying to play catch-up in delivering aid to stricken areas of Indonesia. That's not a competition they're likely to win.

Powell raised the prospect of a political dividend for the United States when he said, "I think it does give the Muslim world and the rest of the world an opportunity to see American generosity, American values, in action." The U.S. relief effort has been extensively reported in the Muslim and Arab press. Will it help? Maybe. "The footage of [U.S.] soldiers giving bottled water will go a long way to rectify those bad images that stem from Iraq and elsewhere," Alami said.

But they might not go far enough. For one thing, the United States has to meet high expectations. As Alami put it, "It's very natural for people in the Middle East and around the world to expect a country as powerful and as rich as the United States to do something in the face of such a disaster." Nematt noted, "There's a threshold for American humanitarian assistance that has become expected of it.... That is why we saw some criticism that the U.S. did not move fast enough."

It may be difficult for Americans to understand, but people in the Muslim world who are not free, who see themselves as victims of their own repressive governments, may not be very sympathetic toward others. Al Hayat's Nematt explains, "In countries that are not democracies, people tend to put less importance on the value of human life. And when people see that their own human life is not respected ... they're not going to sympathize a lot with others, because they see themselves as victims as well."

Nematt adds, "On the one hand, it looks like [the United States is] helping Muslims. On the other, the war in Iraq and the situation in the Palestinian territories give a different message."

In building goodwill, U.S. policies are likely to matter most. Alami noted, "When you are faced with two major conflicts in the area, in Iraq and the Israel-Palestine issue, probably what the administration will do about [those] will help more than feelings people get seeing good footage out of a very bad disaster."

What's most likely to change the U.S. image in the Muslim world is success—not just in delivering humanitarian relief but also in creating a stable democracy in Iraq and in reviving the Arab-Israeli peace process. That's why the Bush administration has so much at stake in this month's elections in Palestine and Iraq. U.S. disaster aid is taken for granted. Democracy in the Middle East is not.