2 former presidents to raise aid for Asia


WASHINGTON -- President Bush enlisted two former presidents yesterday -- his father and Bill Clinton -- to lead a nationwide fund-raising effort to aid victims of the South Asia tsunamis, including those in Indonesia, the world's largest Muslim nation.

But regional specialists said the expanding U.S. relief role might do little to soften the image of America among the world's Muslims.

"We're here to ask our fellow citizens to join in a broad humanitarian relief effort," Bush said in the Roosevelt Room of the White House, where he was joined by former Presidents George Bush and Clinton. "I ask every American to contribute as they are able to do so."

Cash donations "are most useful," he said, urging Americans to contribute directly to what he called "reliable charities," specifically mentioning the Red Cross, the Red Crescent, the Salvation Army, Catholic Relief Services, Save the Children, CARE, UNICEF and AmeriCares.

Later, the president and his two immediate predecessors, along with first lady Laura Bush, paid brief condolence visits to the embassies of the four hardest-hit nations -- Indonesia, India, Sri Lanka and Thailand.

"May God bless all who suffer," the president wrote in the condolence book at the Indonesian Embassy.

Regional specialists, for the most part, applauded the current American relief effort but said the halo effect might well be blunted because Bush was slow to react personally to the calamity, though he has greatly stepped up his involvement in recent days.

"First impressions are the ones that endure," said David L. Phillips, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.

White House spokesman Scott McClellan, briefing reporters, dismissed such criticism and related complaints about the president's decision not to attend a major donors' conference Thursday in the Indonesian capital, Jakarta. He has dispatched Secretary of State Colin L. Powell in his stead.

"The president immediately began working on this," McClellan said, running through a list of actions taken by Bush in the aftermath of the undersea Indian Ocean earthquake and the resulting killer tsunamis that so far have claimed nearly 140,000 lives and left millions homeless or without food.

More fundamental to the problem of generating good will, though, is the sentiment throughout much of the Muslim world that American foreign policy is at odds with Islamic interests. This includes the war in Iraq, the U.S. relationship with Israel and support for authoritarian regimes in the Middle East such as Saudi Arabia, analysts said.

Moreover, U.S. efforts on behalf of Muslim populations in Bosnia and Kosovo in the 1990s did little to ease anti-American hostility in the broader Muslim world, said Bathsheba N. Crocker, a specialist in post-conflict reconstruction issues at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think tank.

Arriving in Thailand today to begin a survey of tsunami damage, Powell told the nation's leaders, "We are in solidarity with you. ... The United States will certainly not turn away from those in desperate need."

Earlier, Powell told reporters that, for the moment, the biggest problem was not money but how to distribute the funds and plan for long-term reconstruction, the Associated Press reported.

As he prepared to begin visits to Thailand, Indonesia and Sri Lanka, he said the relief effort was going well and he saw no immediate need for more federal dollars. "I don't anticipate an increase in money," he said. "We haven't spent the money we've committed so far."

Powell was traveling with the president's brother, Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, who is part of the team of U.S. aid and disaster officials reconnoitering the region.

"The president wanted both of us to come out here to demonstrate U.S. commitment to the nations of the region," the AP quoted Powell as saying.

The depth of the U.S. commitment no longer seems in serious doubt. The initial American pledge of assistance of $15 million, enunciated by Powell the day after the tsunami struck, has ballooned to $350 million and the United States is now leading the relief effort.

But analysts say that the first, relatively small, pledge and the three days that the president remained out of sight at his ranch and let others speak for him have exacted a toll in the good will that the far greater exertions of recent days might be expected to generate.

"Early on, we were seen as dragging our feet," said Crocker. "Now it looks like we're making up for lost time."

As for the money, Peter Singer, who directs a Brookings Institution project on U.S. relations with the Islamic world, said, "People see $15 million for what it is. A drop in the bucket. Not even a drop in the bucket. A molecule."

Singer said it was "unlikely" that the stepped-up U.S. commitment to Indonesia, where the government put the death toll at more than 94,000, and the rest of the tsunami-ravaged region would have a major impact on the American image among Muslims worldwide.

"The core issues," meaning the close relationship between the United States and Israel, the war in Iraq and American backing for authoritarian regimes, remain "the heart of the matter."

Sidney Jones, of the Washington-based International Crisis Group, said the footage of U.S. troops providing critically needed aid should be a short-term boon to America's image.

But, like Singer, Jones said that once the relief effort is over, "the main problems affecting that image will remain." She pointed to many of the same issues as Singer, including the war in Iraq and "one-sided support" for Israel.

Phillips, of the Council on Foreign Relations, like some other analysts, said it was "too soon to tell" whether the American relief effort would have a therapeutic effect: "We dug ourselves a hole in being slow to respond. We're not going to remake our image in a day. We were behind the curve."

Morton L. Abramowitz, a veteran diplomat who has held senior State Department and Pentagon posts and served as ambassador to Thailand and Turkey, said he was not sure what the long-term impact of the American humanitarian assistance will be.

The recent efforts are "very impressive," said Abramowitz, now a senior fellow at the Century Foundation, but he said Bush would have won more good will if he, personally, had surfaced sooner. "The bureaucracy was ahead of the White House," he said.

At the Council on American-Islamic Relations, spokesman Ibrahim Hooper agreed that it was too early to determine if the American effort on behalf of Muslims in South Asia would pay a goodwill dividend, but he held out hope that it might.

"If negative images of our troops in Iraq have helped cause problems, images of our troops handing out relief supplies will help," he said.


Envoys: Secretary of State Colin L. Powell and Florida Gov. Jeb Bush traveled to the Asia region as part of a U.S. aid team.

Logistics: Distributing funds and planning for reconstruction remain obstacles.

Toll update

At least 139,394 people were killed in 11 countries in southern Asia and East Africa from the massive earthquake and tsunamis on Dec. 26, according to official figures. The United Nations estimates the total number of dead will reach 150,000.

Indonesia: 94,081 killed.

Sri Lanka: 30,196 killed with more than 5,000 people still missing.

India: 9,479 deaths with nearly 4,000 more missing.

Thailand: 5,187 dead, including 2,230 foreigners; 3,810 missing.

Other nations: 451 killed.

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