Thursday, January 06, 2005

American Stinginess is Saving Lives

By Mark Steyn (Filed: 01/04/2005)
A week ago, people kept asking me for my opinion of the tsunami, and, to be honest, I didn't have one. It didn't seem the kind of thing to have an "opinion" on, even for an opinion columnist - not like who should win the election or whether we should have toppled Saddam. It was obviously a catastrophe, and it was certain the death toll would keep rising, and other than that there didn't seem a lot to opine about.

I've never subscribed to Macmillan's tediously over-venerated bit of political wisdom about "events, dear boy, events". Most "events" - even acts of God - come, to one degree or another, politically predetermined: almost exactly a year before the tsunamis, there were two earthquakes - one measuring 6.5 in California, one of 6.3 in Iran. The Californian quake killed two people and did little physical damage. The Iranian one killed 40,000 and reduced an entire city to rubble - not just the glories of ancient Persia, but all the schools and hospitals from the 1970s and 1980s. The event in itself wasn't devastating; the conditions on the ground made it so.

That said, a sudden unprecedented surge by the Indian Ocean is as near to a pure "event" as one can get, and it seemed churlish to huff afterwards about why the governments of Somalia or the Maldives hadn't made a tsunami warning system one of their budgetary priorities.

But the waters recede and the familiar contours of the political landscape re-emerge - in this case, the need to fit everything to the Great Universal Theory of the age, that whatever happens, the real issue is the rottenness of America. Jan Egeland, the Norwegian bureaucrat who's the big humanitarian honcho at the UN, got the ball rolling with some remarks about the "stinginess" of certain wealthy nations. And Clare Short piled in, and then Polly Toynbee threw in her three-ha'porth, reminding us that " 'Charity begins at home' is the mean-minded dictum of the Right". But even Telegraph readers subscribe to the Great Universal Theory. On our Letters Page, Robert Eddison dismissed the "paltry $15 million from Washington" as "worse than stingy. The offer - since shamefacedly upped to $35 million - equates to what? Three oil tycoons' combined annual salary?"

Mr Eddison concluded with a stirring plea to the wicked Americans to mend their ways: "If Washington is to lay any claim to the moral, as distinct from the military, high ground, let it emulate Ireland and Norway's prompt and proportionate attempts to plug South-East Asia's gaping gap of need and help avert a further 80,000 deaths from infection and untreated wounds."

If America were to emulate Ireland and Norway, there'd be a lot more dead Indonesians and Sri Lankans. Mr Eddison may not have noticed, but the actual relief effort going on right now is being done by the Yanks: it's the USAF and a couple of diverted naval groups shuttling in food and medicine, with solid help from the Aussies, Singapore and a couple of others. The Irish can't fly in relief supplies, because they don't have any C-130s. All they can do is wait for the UN to swing by and pick up their cheque.

The Americans send the UN the occasional postal order, too. In fact, 40 per cent of Egeland's budget comes from Washington, which suggests the Europeans aren't being quite as "proportionate" as Mr Eddison thinks. But, when disaster strikes, what matters is not whether your cheque is "prompt", but whether you are. For all the money lavished on them, the UN is hard to rouse to action. Egeland's full-time round-the-clock 24/7 Big Humanitarians are conspicuous by their all but total absence on the ground. In fact, they're doing exactly what our reader accused Washington of doing - Colin Powell, wrote Mr Eddison, "is like a surgeon saying he must do a bandage count before he will be in a position to staunch the blood flow of a haemorrhaging patient". That's the sclerotic UN bureaucracy. They've flown in (or nearby, or overhead) a couple of experts to assess the situation and they've issued press releases boasting about the assessments. In Sri Lanka, Egeland's staff informs us, "UNFPA is carrying out reproductive health assessments".

Which, translated out of UN-speak, means the Sri Lankans can go screw themselves.

One of the heartening aspects of the situation is how easy it is to make a difference. By the weekend, the Australians had managed not just to restore the water supply in Aceh, but to improve it. Even before the tsunami, most residents of the city boiled their water. But 10 army engineers from Darwin have managed to crack open the main lines and hook them up to a mobile filtration unit. This is nothing to do with Egeland and his office or how big a cheque the Norwegians sent.

Indeed, the effectiveness of these efforts seems to be what Miss Short finds so objectionable. Washington's announcement that it would be co-ordinating its disaster relief with Australia,India and Japan smacked too much of another "coalition of the willing". "I think this initiative from America to set up four countries claiming to co-ordinate sounds like yet another attempt to undermine the UN," she told the BBC. "Only really the UN can do that job. It is the only body that has the moral authority."

I didn't catch the interview, but I'm assuming that the Oil-for-Fraud programme and the Child-Sex-for-Food programme notwithstanding, Miss Short managed to utter that last sentence with a straight face. But, if you're a homeless Sri Lankan, what matters is not who has the moral authority, but who has the water tankers and medical helicopters. President Bush didn'teven bother mentioning the UN in his statement. Kofi Annan, by contrast, has decided that the Aussie-American "coalition of the willing" is, in fact, a UN operation. "The core group will support the UN effort," he said. "That group will be in support of the efforts that the UN is leading."

So American personnel in American planes and American ships will deliver American food and American medicine and implement an American relief plan, but it's still a "UN-led effort". That seems to be enough for Kofi. His "moral authority" is intact, and Guardian columnists and Telegraph readers can still bash the Yanks for their stinginess. Everybody's happy.


I agree with Mark that there was not much to say or do. It was shocking. Then it became polital. Never in my life have I ever known of an act of God to be political, until now. I haven't written about this because I am trying to think of the people who are suffering and not the people I must suffer.

When I hear the words, "United Nations," I tune out. Maybe this is a bad thing, because I am trying to collect news, but I don't care anymore. I will not waste my precious time on nincompoops. They offend themselves.

The best thing we can do is to move them to Haiti and force them to live as the citizens of Haiti are forced to live, under the UN. Maybe then they would appreciate what it is like to actually suffer. Maybe then they would save Darfur, Sudan. Maybe then they would stop raping childen and women for food. Maybe, but I doubt it. You can move a thug, but you can't change them.

Mark has done a fabulous job capturing my thoughts. This article appeared in the Telegraph of London. It is dated 04/01/05. They use the day/month method in England.

He has written many articles that have been published. Please visit his blog (web log) as you surf the net. Hat tip to Daniel Foty.

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