THE USS Abraham Lincoln is joining the American relief effort in the countries hit by the devastating tsunami this week. Let's hope the aircraft carrier is leaving behind the embarrassingly premature "Mission Accomplished" banner that was hoisted to celebrate the supposed end of the shooting war in Iraq nearly 20 months ago - because this job, too, will be a long and difficult one. Fighting hunger, thirst and disease, and then restoring normal life to the Indian Ocean nations that have just suffered so much death and destruction, will take years.

Yesterday, President Bush took a break from his vacation clearing brush on the ranch in Crawford, Texas, to announce that the United States is committed to a long-term engagement. An initial promise of $15 million has already been raised to $35 million - which drains the government's emergency relief fund - but Mr. Bush said that more will be forthcoming as time goes on. The Pentagon is sending not only the Abraham Lincoln but also a hospital ship and seven ships that produce fresh water, as well as a contingent of Marines.

This is all welcome news, but it's hard not to think that the White House has been shamed into taking action after its initial tightwad commitment attracted so much criticism. It's now clear that Sunday's earthquake was one of the epic disasters of modern history. India reported an official death toll yesterday that was more than double the number of Americans killed on 9/11, and the actual numbers may be twice again as high; Sri Lanka's toll was seven times that of 9/11; Indonesia's was at least 15 times greater (and probably much more than that). Yet the president of the United States had nothing to say for three full days.

This inability to seize the moment is perplexing. Even though the true measure of America's response can only be calculated over time, it is nonetheless the case that first impressions count for a great deal. Indonesia is the world's largest Muslim nation; here is a chance for the United States to show how much good it can do, to take the lead in bringing relief to this sorely tested nation. A perceived lack of compassion could come back to haunt America.

In fairness, it's worth remembering that Mr. Bush was at first slow to display his mettle in the wake of 9/11, but after visiting New York and addressing Congress, he won praise for his leadership in a time of crisis. As he prepares for his second term, here is another opportunity to set an example, and on a global stage. But this is not a disaster that can be solved with a photo op or two. No one should be looking around for an exit strategy. Recovery from the tsunami of '04 will last as long as his presidency - and perhaps the next.

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