Monday, January 3, 2005

In the heyday of musical comedy, they had “catalog songs” — great long laundry lists of examples that all go to prove the same point — that “You’re The Top” or “These Foolish Things Remind Me Of You.” That’s the way it is with the world’s opinion formers these days. Whatever happens anywhere on the planet all goes to prove the same central point — the iniquity of America.

Even so, you would think an unprecedented tsunami in a region that has never been a U.S. sphere of influence would be hard to pin on the Great Satan. And, to be fair to the global rent-a-quote crowd, for an hour or two they were stunned into silence. But it wasn’t long before they were back singing the same old song: Disaffected young Muslim men in Saudi Arabia, devastated coastal villages in Sri Lanka … “These Foolish Things Remind Me Of U.S.A.” You really need Cole Porter:

You’re The Pits

With your massive armies

You’re The Pits

And you cause tsunamis.

Jan Egeland, that Norwegian bloke who is the U.N. humanitarian honcho, got the ball rolling with a few general remarks about big countries’ “stinginess.” He particularly thinks U.S. tax rates too low. Got that? Those tightwad Yanks aren’t doing enough.

But whoa, hang on. It turns out those pushy Yanks are doing way too much, at least according to Clare Short, formerly Britain’s international development secretary (until she stormed out of Tony Blair’s Cabinet to protest the Iraq war). President Bush roused her ire by announcing Washington would coordinate its disaster relief with Australia, India and Japan. To Miss Short that had a whiff of another “coalition of the willing.” “I think this initiative from America to set up four countries claiming to coordinate sounds like yet another attempt to undermine the U.N.,” she told the BBC. “Only really the U.N. can do that job. It is the only body that has the moral authority.”

“Moral authority”? Hey, maybe now that the Oil-for-Fraud gig’s dried up, Kofi Annan’s son could head the relief effort.

But Miss Short has usefully clarified what it means when the world says “America” isn’t “giving” enough “aid.” It means the government isn’t giving enough money to Jan Egeland’s U.N. office. That’s the only “giving” that counts. That Pfizer has given $35 million, which is more than most G7 governments have chipped in, doesn’t mean anything. That’s customers donated more than $6 million in 48 hours doesn’t count. The ships and troops send by America are of no consequence. What Jan Egeland means when he talks of “stinginess” is you’re not ponying up enough taxpayer bucks to his departmental budget. That’s the only measure of global compassion that matters, and he doesn’t want to have his time wasted with a lot of chit-chat about any of this other stuff: It’s my way or the highway, he says — if, indeed, such a thing is said in Norwegian. Anyway, it’s Norway or the doorway. As it happens, the United States pays 40 percent of Mr. Egeland’s budget. But, even if the budget was tripled and the U.S. paid 70 percent of it, that wouldn’t be enough.

I was in the car when Mr. Egeland’s press conference came on the radio, and I confess he began to grate on me very quickly with his airy talk of “rebuilding” the affected “societies.” He’s a citizen of Norway. Has he got a work permit for Thailand? And, if not, isn’t there something just a wee bit neo-colonialist about his assumption he knows what’s best for the Indian Ocean?

Aside from its “moral authority,” the justification for doing everything through the United Nations is that you need one central coordinating authority — that 1,000 ad hoc organizations and volunteers swarming Indonesia and Sri Lanka would just stumble over each other wastefully and inefficiently.

Yet, even though Mr. Egeland’s office has a permanent bureaucracy dedicated solely to humanitarian relief work, a week after the disaster it didn’t seem to have actually done anything other than fly in some experts to assess the situation. Reporters on the ground have noted the lack of activity in Colombo and Sumatra. But the U.S. government already had ships and troops and water and medicine on the way.

That’s what you need: an operational infrastructure for long-distance emergencies — or, in a word, a military. If you don’t have a functioning military, it doesn’t matter how caring you profess to be. Take my own country, Canada. We have this thing called DART — the Disaster Assistance Response Team, a 200-man military unit created precisely for such situations. By all accounts, they’re very good, highly trained professionals.

But Ottawa has no way to get them to the Indian Ocean. Indeed, it’s doubtful if it could get them to the remoter parts of Canada. The reality is you require a big modern well-equipped military, not just for invasions and dropping bombs on foreigners but for all the touchy-feely peacekeeping stuff, too.

Canada talks the talk — incessantly — but it can’t walk the walk. And, despite its smug preening as a multilateralist in good standing, Ottawa spends 0.28 percent of GDP on overseas aid — or about half what it spent 30 years ago.

It’s easy to be wise after the event, to say, oh, well, the Indian Ocean should have had a tsunami warning system like the Pacific. I don’t blame the Maldives for not making that a budgetary priority. But it’s hard not to feel something went wrong somewhere when you read the bulletin issued by the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center 15 minutes after the earthquake: “This bulletin is for all areas of the Pacific basin except Alaska, British Columbia, Washington, Oregon, California. … This earthquake is located outside the Pacific. No destructive tsunami threat exists.”

At that point, the tsunami was still an hour away from Thailand, and several hours away from Somalia. But whoever issued that bulletin either never thought to call anyone in the Indian Ocean, or had no one in his Rolodex to call.

Do you remember the early scene in last year’s hilarious eco-comedy “The Day After Tomorrow?” A handful of Brit scientists are holed up in Scotland when they notice the temperatures drop rapidly on some of their buoys in the North Atlantic, and they call Dennis Quaid in Washington, because he’s got top billing and thus gets to save the planet while they’re just a bunch of Royal Shakespeare Company supporting actors who get frozen to death in the early scenes.

State-of-the-art buoys measuring temperature and water level don’t cost that much, nor would a chain of monitoring offices. If you’re to have a permanent U.N. bureaucracy, that would seem the perfect role for a transnational body.

But, after 60 years, the neocolonial viceroys of Big Humanitarianism would rather maintain the developing countries as permanently helpless children and lecture the advanced world on its tax rates. If Clare Short’s right and Mr. Bush is intentionally bypassing the U.N., good for him.

Mark Steyn is the senior contributing editor for Hollinger Inc. Publications, senior North American columnist for Britain’s Telegraph Group, North American editor for the Spectator, and a nationally syndicated columnist.

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