- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 30, 2004

President Bush yesterday announced the formation of an international coalition to deal with the catastrophic effects from the deadly tsunami that swept across South Asia and rebuked a senior United Nations official for calling the United States “stingy.”

“The person who made that statement was very misguided and ill-informed,” Mr. Bush said in his first public remarks on Sunday’s underwater earthquake and subsequent tsunami that has killed about 77,000 people. “No, we’re a very generous, kind-hearted nation.”

Secretary of State Colin L. Powell has contacted officials in various Asian nations to form a coalition to provide both immediate humanitarian relief and long-term reconstruction.

“Based on these discussions, we’ve established a regional core group with India, Japan and Australia to help coordinate relief efforts,” the president said. “I’m confident more nations will join this core group in short order.”

Yesterday, Mr. Bush called the leaders of India, Sri Lanka, Thailand and Indonesia to assure them that an initial U.S. aid package of $35 million “is only the beginning of our help.”

Other nations also have pledged financial support. Japan will give $30 million; Great Britain, Germany and Australia have pledged between $27 million to $29 million each; and France has said it will contribute $20.5 million.

“These past few days have brought loss and grief to the world that is beyond our comprehension,” Mr. Bush told reporters at his ranch in Crawford, Texas. “We are committed to helping the affected countries in the difficult weeks and months that lie ahead.”

Marc Grossman, undersecretary of state for political affairs, will lead a U.S. task force to coordinate the U.S. response and urge other nations to help provide relief. In a 40-minute conference call last night, he spoke with senior Japanese, Australian and Indian officials on coordinating all parties’ aid efforts to avoid duplication.

The president’s emphasis on the United States’ generosity was aimed at countering suggestions Monday by Jan Egeland, U.N. undersecretary-general for humanitarian affairs, that the United States and other Western countries were “stingy.”

Mr. Egeland has been backpedaling from those remarks since coming under fire from Mr. Powell on Tuesday.

“I obviously did a mistake,” the Norwegian-born diplomat acknowledged yesterday.

Still, Mr. Egeland’s original remarks continued to rankle U.S. officials yesterday. Andrew Natsios, administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), defended America’s generosity.

“In terms of our level of contribution, there’s been a little controversy over it,” Mr. Natsios told reporters at the State Department. “We are by far the largest donor — no one even comes close to us — and have been for a long time.

“The president actually has increased assistance in food aid and disaster relief while I’ve been administrator in his first term,” he added. “So, we have been generous.”

Mr. Bush pointed out that the initial package of $35 million in aid does not reflect the cost of sending U.S. military assets to the scene of the disaster.

“It takes money, by the way, to move an expeditionary force into the region,” he said. “We’re dispatching a Marine expeditionary unit, the aircraft carrier Abraham Lincoln, and the maritime pre-position squadron from Guam to the area to help with relief efforts.”

In another example of U.S. military forces helping out, the Pentagon’s National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, said yesterday it is using its spy satellites to gather such information as damage assessments of roads, bridges, ports and airfields. The information is used to guide U.S. agencies handling disaster relief on where to send workers and life-support supplies.

The United Nations yesterday made an international appeal for $130 million to help its relief effort in Sri Lanka, Indonesia and the Maldives. Mr. Egeland said $70 million would go to Sri Lanka, $40 million dollars to Indonesia and $20 million to the Maldives.

Mr. Bush said the outpouring of aid is typical of the United States.

“In the year 2004, our government provided $2.4 billion in food, in cash, in humanitarian relief to cover the disasters for last year,” he said. “That’s 40 percent of all the relief aid given in the world.”

The president emphasized that governmental largesse is only part of the aid contributed by the United States.

“The $2.4 billion was public money, of course, provided by the taxpayers,” he said. “But there’s also a lot of individual giving in America.”

He urged Americans to donate cash, not commodities, for maximum efficiency in the relief efforts.

“A lot of times Americans, in their desire to help, will send blankets or clothes,” he said. “To me, it makes more sense to send cash to organizations that could then use that cash to make sure we match resources with specific needs on the ground.”

Mr. Bush also addressed the possibility of tsunamis hitting the United States.

“Do we have enough of a warning system for the West Coast?” he asked. “I am now asking that to our agencies and government to let us know.”

He added: “Clearly, there wasn’t a proper warning system in place for that part of the world, and it seems like, to me, it makes sense for the world to come together to develop a warning system that will help all nations.”

This article is based in part on wire service reports.



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