- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 28, 2004

Sunday’s giant tsunami engulfed coasts from Indonesia to Africa and is shaping up to be one of the worst natural disasters in recent history. The earthquake that triggered it was the strongest worldwide since 1964 and fourth-strongest since earthquake measurements were first recorded in 1899. Comparisons were being made with the legendary 1883 Krakatoa volcanic explosion, which created another major tidal wave and devastated Indonesia.

As of midday yesterday reports of the death toll were as high as 59,000 in the 10 countries affected and seemed likely to rise. Many are still unaccounted for, and aid officials are warning that starvation, cholera and other diseases could double the death toll unless action is taken quickly.

So the race is on to save as many of the survivors as possible. The first foreign-aid shipments began arriving Tuesday. Western donor nations and other developed-world governments announced their initial monetary contributions. The major relief agencies and other non-profits began drives for financial and material assistance. Meanwhile, the U.S. Pacific Command is redirecting U.S. naval power on humanitarian missions to aid the relief effort. To the extent that world powers can come together in common purpose, they were doing it on Monday and Tuesday.

But even amid the chaos and suffering, the peace of God didn’t last a day. Most prominently, finger-pointing by United Nations officials commenced almost immediately.

You’d think the highest-ranking U.N. officials could stick to the business at hand and save their unrelated Euro-socialist gripings about tax cuts and the evils of capitalism for another day. You’d be wrong. U.N. Undersecretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs Jan Egeland — the world body’s point man for relief efforts, not fiscal policy — criticized politicians in the United States and Europe for their recent pushes to cut taxes.

Calling Western nations “stingy,” he criticized leaders for “believ[ing] that they are really burdening the taxpayers too much, and the taxpayers want to give less.”

Somehow Mr. Egeland thought castigating everyone in the West for domestic economic policies he happens not to like would help the effort to save lives in Indonesia, Sri Lanka and elsewhere. He was wrong. Secretary of State Colin Powell fired back yesterday morning, pointing out to Mr. Egeland that the United States is the greatest contributor to international relief efforts in the world, and that more than half of the $7 million appeal by the International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent was being met by the United States government. The subtext: Mr. Egeland had done further damage to the U.N.’s credibility as a competent administrator of humanitarian relief by trying to use human misery to further an unrelated leftist economic agenda.

Realizing his blunder, Mr. Egeland changed his tune, saying yesterday his remarks had been misinterpreted. “The international assistance that has come and been pledged from the United States, Europe and countries from the region has also been very generous,” he insisted.

We’re glad to see Mr. Egeland eat his sour grapes. He issued them even before Western nations had announced the full extent of their efforts. The early announcements by the Bush administration, the European Union and EU member countries of dollar-figure donations — figures below Mr. Egeland’s liking — are only the tip of the iceberg. Mr. Powell hinted as much on Monday. “We have to see this not just as a one-time thing,” he said. “Some 20-plus thousand lives have been lost in a few moments, but the lingering effects will be there for years.” Then there are the tens of millions being pledged by private relief agencies.

And then there is the expected U.S. military contribution. The U.S. Pacific Command is still determining how it will deploy vessels and manpower throughout the region. But everyone knows that the United States will bear an enormous cost in equipment and transport in the relief effort — costs that are off the books but as real and significant as any crate of rations or potable water.

And that’s where the hard part begins: Getting food, water, clothing, shelter and relief workers to the people who need them. With so many dead so quickly, there’s no time for international bureaucrats to take ideological shots at the sources of relief.

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