There’s an old joke about a meeting between two men, one of whom is an egomaniac. The egomaniac yaks on endlessly about himself, not giving the other man a chance to get in a word. Finally, he stops and says, “But enough about me. What about you? What do you think of me?”
Sometimes it seems that our country lives in just such a solipsistic world, always staring into a mirror which shows us at our well-lighted best. So it has been since not soon after the Sumatran undersea earthquake and then tsunami struck. Following upon the first miniscule post-tsunami aid offer from Washington and the silence from Crawford, the President emerged to hold an exceedingly defensive news conference in which he launched what would quickly become a continuing mantra of praise for us as a generous, kindhearted people. His representatives then fanned out through the media and across the world offering the same wisdom. We are, it was said over and over, generous and kindhearted, not to speak of kindhearted and generous. We are the best. The tops. No one more than us. Television news, which swarmed on the casualties of nature’s tsunami (as they have not on those created by the Bush administration’s man-made version of the same in Iraq), seems to have finished off the PR job with plenty of self-praise and lots of shots of saved children waving at American military helicopters — the sort of thing we’ve been evidently been starved for in Iraq.
It’s a strange phenomenon really. Few evidently find it faintly unseemly that one of the great natural catastrophes in memory should be a publicity occasion for the Bush administration to pump up the American people mainly, it seems, to pump up itself. It’s true, after all, that, like people the world over, Americans were deeply unnerved, disturbed, and moved by the tsunami horrors they saw and, from movie stars like Sandra Bullock (who donated $1 million to the Red Cross for tsunami relief) to Americans in all walks of life, contributions poured in. It’s this that the administration is so ready to give, and take, credit for — to horn in on really — and it’s very much of our age. Have you noticed, for instance, how rare is the anonymous donor these days? No donation by the rich and powerful (or their wannabes) ever seems to go uncredited any more — from seatbacks in theaters to the smallest wings of wings of buildings.
And yet when it came down to demonstrating a little actual American generosity, it turned out that the Bush administration had not the slightest urge — not, at least, if anything it cared about needed to be sacrificed in the process. After all, in the midst of tsunami and war, our warrior president is holding a series of gala inaugural extravaganzas that represent a $40 million-plus outpouring of (corporate) generosity, and the White House doesn’t plan to give up a single one of those nine inaugural balls, not certainly for Indonesian survivors, as this typically evasive exchange with presidential spokesperson Trent Duffy indicates:
“Q Given the cost of aid to Asia, the cost of the war, is there any thought being given to toning down some of the lavish inaugural activities?
“MR. DUFFY: I think the inaugural activities are paid for out of private contributions, not governmental funds. I would refer you to the Inaugural Committee for an answer for that.”
…not for armoring American vehicles in Iraq, as the following exchange between the New York Times Magazine’s Deborah Solomon and Jeanne L. Phillips, the chairwoman of the 55th Presidential Inaugural Committee, makes clear (It’s the President’s Party):
“As an alternative way of honoring them, did you or the president ever discuss canceling the nine balls and using the $40 million inaugural budget to purchase better equipment for the troops?
“I think we felt like we would have a traditional set of events and we would focus on honoring the people who are serving our country right now — not just the people in the armed forces, but also the community volunteers, the firemen, the policemen, the teachers, the people who serve at, you know, the — well, it’s called the StewPot in Dallas, people who work with the homeless.
“How do any of them benefit from the inaugural balls?
“I’m not sure that they do benefit from them.
“Then how, exactly, are you honoring them?
“Honoring service is what our theme is about.”
…not for nuthin’. Hey, why not dance the corporate night away! There’s so much service for compassionate conservatives to celebrate!
So, somewhat belatedly, the administration responded to the tsunami by sending in the Marines, more or less literally. And yet its acts of generosity have been far more limited, militarized, and self-interested than is generally understood, something that is increasingly true, as researcher Tom Barry explained recently, of what now passes for American “foreign aid” generosity. Take earthquake- and tsunami-devastated, and war-torn Aceh in Indonesia, for instance. The Bush administration, which puts military-to-military relations with regimes worldwide above much else when it comes to “diplomacy” in the era of the war on terrorism, seems to be using tsunami aid to get a camouflaged big toe back into the Congressionally forbidden waters of the Indonesian military, as Sidney Blumenthal wrote in the Guardian just the other day. At investigative reporter Tim Shorrock’s relatively new “Hawking the Empire” blog (which is well worth keeping an eye on), Shorrock sums up the situation this way:
“Despite [the horrors the Indonesian military has inflicted on Aceh separatists], the Bush administration has been trying (unsuccessfully) to lift congressional bans on US-Indonesian military cooperation. Now, military hardliners are trying to use the tsunami disaster as an excuse to do away with this ban once again. On Monday, Dana Dillon, a fellow with the Heritage Foundation, wrote in the Wall Street Journal that the disaster ‘affords the opportunity for the TNI to demonstrate that democratic reform has transformed it from a state-sponsored mafia into a professional military dedicated to the security of Indonesia.’ Fat chance. But be on the lookout for a major change in policy, all under the guise of humanitarianism.”
In essence, the Bush administration has horned in on genuine, anonymous American generosity, grabbed it, branded it, and run with it for reasons far less generous and more self-interested than is faintly healthy.
Just the other day, I read the single most harrowing first person account I’ve seen — by an American diving instructor in Thailand — of being caught right in the path of the giant waves. The instructor’s final comments, I found of special interest:
“In Bangkok most people got help pretty quick. The Swedes, Germans and English had charted flights for their citizens to get home. The Thai government gave free hotel rooms to survivors and there were lists of places to get food. EXCEPT the Americans. I went in to find out what help I could get — I was able to get a replacement passport, a toothbrush and a paperback book. They said it was not their policy to arrange flights home. I was cut up, still covered in a pretty good layer of mud, I had no home, no money, no clothing… nothing at all, and they could do nothing to help.
“They did offer to let me borrow money, but they would have to find three people in America who would vouch for me, and that process should take less than a week. In the mean time I was fucked. I was destitute and rejected by the embassy. Karin was with me (she’s Swedish) and said that I could still try and emigrate to Sweden. I was VERY tempted.
“In these last days, watching politicians go on about helping and giving aid, but they won’t even take care of their own citizens? I am very, very angry. All the other nations of the world were taking care of their own citizens! Eventually I got a flight home with JAL (that would be JAPAN airlines) not even an American company, but a JAPANESE company helped me get home.
“I am still listed as neither found nor alive. Before I left I had spoken to the embassy twice on the phone, giving my name so I would be listed as alive so my family would not worry. I went to the embassy twice, once to get a passport to replace the one lost in the tsunami, and they never listed me as alive or found. I flew out of the country using said passport and am still not found. I went to the hospital three times, and, as of yesterday I am now listed as injured (having been in the states three days already). My family is now waiting to see how long it will take before they are notified about my status. So am I.”
This passage is a reminder — like the unarmored vehicles in Iraq — of the distance between Bush administration PR and actual American efforts on the ground; but perhaps it also reflects the fact that whatever the Bush administration does now is so militarized that the efforts of the under-attended, under-funded civil part of our government are bound to fall short.
If you’re not inside the American bubble, Bush administration humanitarianism may, in fact, have quite a different look, and we need to be reminded of that — as the short, angry piece below by Filipino columnist and Tomdispatch contributor Renato Redentor Constantino makes clear. He himself has been in Thailand — part of his work for the organization Greenpeace (though he tells me he’s only been indirectly involved in its tsunami relief efforts). In a recent email, he added the following informal notes to his piece:
“Many have not forgotten the irony of the U.S. heading the disaster conference in Jakarta right now — after having supplied lists of names to the butcher Suharto who led the murder of close to a million Indonesians following the ouster of Sukarno. No, many tides have not receded.
“I am simply aghast at the opportunism that the U.S. is displaying in undertaking a massive PR job on top of its picayune financial pledge. I have been working with others who are doing direct relief work, such as supporting forensics initiatives in Phuket, and I have noted down the faces and pleas on the small signs posted in Khao San in Bangkok. The photos are mostly of westerners but also of many Asians. They are harrowing not only because the harvest of lives is horrifying, but also because scattered among the photos are so many pictures of children. I can’t help thinking that it could have been me. And I also couldn’t help thinking that if the American media had employed the same microscopic intensity in covering the Iraq war, countless numbers of children in Iraq could have been saved — for the world will be witness to the ongoing wave of murder washing over Iraq today.”
Photos of the missing proliferating in public places: It could be a scene from Argentina in the 1980s or New York City in September 2001. It could be so many places on Earth, places where genuine kindheartedness and generosity aren’t in short supply if given half-an-unmilitarized chance. Tom
As we grieve
By Renato Redentor Constantino
There is no space wider than that of grief, wrote the poet Pablo Neruda. “There is no universe like that which bleeds.” On the planet of sorrow, “there is no street, no one has a door. The sand opens up only to a tremor. And the whole sea opens the whole of silence.”
Poetry, said Italo Calvino, is the art of putting the ocean into a glass.
Imperial truth: pretending the glass of water is an ocean.
Imperial love: America’s first offer of aid to tsunami victims: $15 million. Cost of one F-22 Raptor jet: $225 million. Cost of Kerry and Bush campaigns: $400 million. Cost of America’s occupation of Iraq per day: $280 million.
Relief from empire arithmetic: subtract the U.S. from Iraq and then throw the entirety of the sum saved into the reconstruction needs of South Asia and the Middle East.
Imperial relief: tsunami = opportunity to buzz around scene of disaster, put on shock-and-awe screen-saver face, and save face.
“It turns out that the majority of those nations affected were Muslim nations,” said US Secretary of State Colin Powell after touring earthquake and tsunami-stricken Banda Aceh, Indonesia, from the air. “We’d be doing it regardless of religion,” said Mr. Powell, referring to the Bush administration’s niggling aid contribution. “But 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 world shamed the U.S. government into increasing its tsunami assistance from the initially pitiful $15 million offer, a measure of indifference, to the wholly inadequate $350 million. The White House insists no, no, there’s more to come. Whatever. Just give; it’s horribly needed. But please stop the preening.
“I cannot begin to imagine the horror that went through the families and all of the people who heard this noise coming and had their lives snuffed out by this wave,” sniffed Mr. Powell as he surveyed the devastation in Aceh. “The power of the wave to destroy bridges, to destroy factories, to destroy homes, to destroy crops, to destroy everything in its path is amazing.”
Very observant, Mr. Powell. But there are tides and tides — and some tides have yet to recede from the region.
“The damage done by the deluge far exceeded the hopes of everyone,” reported the U.S. Fifth Air Force gleefully in May 1953 after wave upon wave of American fighter-bombers had destroyed and emptied the 2,300-foot Toksan dam, an earth-and-stone reservoir in North Korea. Floodwaters from the dam surged and washed out bridges and roads and swept away railway lines. The massive flash-flood destroyed hundreds of buildings and devastated rice field after rice field.
“Go massive. Sweep it all up, things related or not” insisted Donald Rumsfeld on September 11, 2001 as he ordered his aides to come up with a plan to attack Iraq a mere five hours after American Airlines Flight 77 plowed into the Pentagon. Yes sir! Back to the future!
In 1953, an American commanding general in Korea described the annihilation of the Toksan dam as “perhaps the most spectacular [strike] of the war” and “immediately scheduled two more dams for destruction.” Five more dams lay in ruins when the work was done. Five dams which together “supplied water for the irrigation system of an area that produced three-quarters of North Korea’s rice.”
U.S. Air Force accounts joyously described the intended consequences of the campaign. “To the average Oriental,” wrote one report “. . . an empty rice bowl symbolizes starvation.”
The Oriental “could stand the loss of industry” stated another. He “could sustain great loss of human life, for life is plentiful and apparently cheap in the Orient.” But not rice. “The Westerner,” the report declared, “can little conceive the awesome meaning which the loss of this stable food commodity has for the Asian — starvation and slow death . . . Attacks on the precious water supply had struck where it hurts most.”
“The last time an act of this kind had been carried out, which was by the Nazis in Holland in 1944,” said Korea historians Jon Halliday and Bruce Cumings, “it had been deemed a war crime at Nuremberg.”
“I hope that as a result of our efforts, as a result of our helicopter pilots being seen . . . [America's] value system will be reinforced,” Colin Powell said after stepping out of a helicopter.
No need for such reinforcement. It was never in doubt.
Soon after the ouster of the Khmer Rouge, which had inundated Cambodia with four years of slaughter, America the generous extended its generous hand and provided, among other forms of assistance, $85 million in direct support to a group headed by someone named . . . Pol Pot.
Tom Engelhardt [send him mail] is editor of TomDispatch.com, a project of the Nation Institute. He is the author of several books, including The Last Days of Publishing: A Novel and The End of Victory Culture. Renato Redentor Constantino [send him mail] worked for a number of years with Greenpeace in Southeast Asia and most recently with Greenpeace in China. Constantino still works with Greenpeace campaigns, including documenting the impact of global warming and dirty energy as well as securing beachheads for the massive uptake of renewable energy in Asia. Constantino writes a regular column for the Philippine national daily TODAY.