WASHINGTON—Senior Bush administration officials say they're hoping that a swelling American aid effort to tsunami victims and television footage of U.S. troops delivering relief and assisting the injured will help improve America's battered image overseas.
Secretary of State Colin Powell and other top officials stress that the vast humanitarian need in Asia, not geopolitics, is driving the aid effort, which accelerated sharply after international criticism of President Bush's initial response.
Yet after months of being bruised over the deeply troubled U.S. effort in Iraq and mistreatment of detainees in Iraq's Abu Ghraib prison and elsewhere, the officials say they're cautiously optimistic that the aid effort could help project a different image.
"I think it's good for us abroad, and I must say it's good for us at home, too," said a senior State Department official, citing the American public's strong response to the Dec. 26 earthquake and tsunami, which claimed an estimated 150,000 lives. He spoke on condition of anonymity.
Yet current and former U.S. officials say the lasting impact of American assistance remains to be seen.
It'll be felt more in East Asia, where the relevance and staying power of America's traditional presence has been called into question, than in the Middle East, they said.
And, they said, it will depend on whether the United States remains committed to a long-term reconstruction effort after the disaster has faded from the news.
Powell and other world figures meet in Jakarta, Indonesia, on Thursday to coordinate international tsunami-relief efforts.
The senior official, who's deeply involved in the American aid effort, said it marked the first time that a United Nations appeal for disaster funds—to be made by U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan—had been met, and surpassed, even before it was formally announced.
Powell, who's on a tour of the hardest-hit regions, said Tuesday that foreign assistance such as the $350 million U.S. government contribution for tsunami relief furthered America's national security. "It's in our best interest, and it dries up those pools of dissatisfaction, which might give rise to terrorist activity," he said.
Yet the U.S. effort appears likely to have little impact in the Middle East.
The tsunami hasn't riveted attention in the Arab world, even though many of the victims are from Indonesia, the world's most populous Muslim nation.
"It's the fourth or fifth story on the front page ... in paper after paper, day after day," said Jon Alterman of the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies, who's been following Arab media coverage of the disaster.
Alterman cited several explanations, including the focus on Arabs' suffering in Iraq and the Israel-Palestinian conflict and the fact that, culturally, natural disasters are frequently seen as God's will.
The broader impact of American assistance to Muslims in Southeast Asia will be diminished by "a sort of second-class Muslim idea in much of the Middle East," Alterman said. Many Arabs, whose lands gave birth to Islam and in whose language the Quran is written, look down on their brethren in Asia.
Still, in Southeast Asia, U.S. officials say, they see a chance to increase American prestige and dampen the potential for terrorism.
The disaster provides "an enormous opening" for the United States to improve its standing with the Muslim population of Indonesia, said a senior administration official, also speaking on condition of anonymity.
Despite the administration's early fumbles and the fact that others, including Japan, have pledged more assistance, "we got our people and our helicopters and our supplies there faster, and that's what people can see," the official said.
In Indonesia, whose Muslim population is overwhelmingly moderate, polls taken after the U.S. invasion of Iraq showed plummeting support for the United States. America's "favorable" rating fell from 61 percent to 15 percent from summer 2002 to summer 2003, according to the Pew Research Center.
"I think the tsunami will have quite big effects on the politics of Southeast Asia," said Greg Sheridan, the foreign editor of The Australian newspaper.
In Indonesia, unless the government badly mishandles relief efforts, it "will tend to take the wind out of the (extremist) Islamic sails," said Sheridan, who's currently a fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a national-security research center.
Sheridan said the disaster also illustrated the limits of China's expanding influence in the region. China has pledged $64 million in aid and sent a few dozen medical personnel to assist.
A State Department official who recently returned from Southeast Asia agreed that U.S. aid could help shore up America's alliances. "We have been struggling to remain relevant and to demonstrate to our traditional allies the benefit of the alliances we have," said the official, who requested anonymity.
(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
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