Global Policy Forum

Riding the Wave


By James Ridgeway

Village Voice
January 4, 2005

Playing politics with disaster victims does not make a pretty picture, but aid relief in South Asia is being carried out against a background of crass opportunism. Although its slow and tepid reaction might at first appear to be a setback for a "stingy" Bush administration, in fact, the tsunami opens a new ball game—allowing the conservative government to one-up the U.N. (which it intensely dislikes), reinforce an alliance with Japan and India, project military force in the Indian Ocean at a point where Al Qaeda is on the move, and restore the world's faith in the lovable U.S. military.

The Asian catastrophe comes at a difficult time for the U.N. Echoing a longtime conservative theme, the Bush administration is engaged in an all-out attack on the international institution—trying to get rid of not only Secretary-General Kofi Annan but also Mohamed ElBaradei, head of the U.N.'s International Atomic Energy Agency. The seriousness of the attack on Annan was underscored by The New York Times' revelation of a secret meeting at the New York apartment of Clinton U.N. Ambassador Richard Holbrooke to shore up support for Annan.

The tsunami offers the U.S. another opportunity to undermine the U.N. Instead of routing its aid through the international organization, which is directed by its members to coordinate disaster relief and equipped with full-time employees to do the job, Bush announced that four nations—the U.S., Japan, Australia, and India—would lead the relief effort. He then dispatched a veritable armada of U.S. warships, planes, helicopters, and marines to take the lead in doing the job. Former U.K. International Development Secretary Clare Short saw it as "yet another [American] attempt to undermine the U.N." And indeed, the U.S. pointedly ignored the U.N., with Secretary of State Colin Powell hoping that "people will see that the United States is willing to reach out to the Muslim world in this time of need."

The armada dispatched to the eastern reaches of the Indian Ocean offers immediate aid to the stricken areas of Sumatra. It includes aircraft carriers and other naval vessels, with a total crew complement of 6,500 sailors and marines. Its deployment represents one of the biggest military operations in Asian waters since Vietnam. In doing so, the U.S. is extending military force into Muslim Indonesia, which is fighting its own war on terror against Al Qaeda. Around the tip of Indonesia to the east opens the Strait of Malacca, by all odds one of the world's most crucial shipping channels, the passage through which ships bring oil from the Middle East to China and Japan.

Since the election, the administration has put the U.N. under siege, demanding the resignation of Annan because of alleged corruption—including wrongdoing by Annan's son—in the oil-for-food program in Iraq. In the past, the U.S. has blocked funding for U.N. population programs, and through such congressional figures as Jesse Helms has gone out of its way to frustrate U.N. operations. Before the Iraq war, the U.S. manipulated Security Council countries, spying on them and trying to pressure them into voting for the invasion. Currently, in addition to getting rid of Annan, the U.S. wants to fire ElBaradei at a time when Bush seeks to persuade public opinion that the Iranians are secretly going forward with plans for nuclear development, i.e. the bomb.

The secret meeting in early December at Holbrooke's New York apartment, to get liberals to circle the wagons and fight for the life of the U.N., was called amid a congressional investigation of the oil-for-food program, charges that U.N. officials were running prostitution rings in Africa and kidnapping and raping young women, and criticism of U.N. management by staff unions. Minnesota Republican senator Norm Coleman has called for Annan's resignation.

"The intention was to keep it confidential," Holbrooke told The New York Times. "No one wanted to give the impression of a group of outsiders, all of them Americans, dictating what to do to a secretary-general." Which, of course, is exactly what he is doing. He said the group gathered in his apartment were all people "who care deeply about the U.N. and believe that the U.N. cannot succeed if it is in open dispute and constant friction with its founding nation, its host nation, and its largest contributor nation." He added, "The U.N., without the U.S. behind it, is a failed institution."

The U.S. has shamelessly used the U.N. during and after the Cold War. Among other things, as James Bamford points out in his recent book A Pretext for War, having the U.N. in New York made it easier for the National Security Agency to tap the conversations of officials from all over the world. When Bush was laying out the disinformation campaign as a prelude to going to war in Iraq, the NSA used its super-secret eavesdropping equipment to tap the phones of chief U.N. arms inspector in Iraq Hans Blix—including his cell and the HQ for the U.N. inspection team in Baghdad. The transcripts were given to British officials. Clare Short, then a member of the Blair cabinet, later said, "I have seen transcripts of Kofi Annan's conversations. In fact, I have had conversations with Kofi in the run-up to war, thinking, 'Oh dear, there will be a transcript of this and people will see what he and I are saying.'" Boutros Boutros-Ghali, Annan's predecessor, remarked at one point, "The perception is that you must know in advance that your office, your residence, your car, your phone is bugged."

Smoke and mirrors

Kicking back at his Texas ranch over the holidays, Bush was attacked for the initial piddling response to the tsunami, but then, upping the amount to $350 million and potentially to a billion, he looked good.

By Monday the U.N. reported that total donations were up to $2 billion, and Bill Clinton and Bush's father were joining up to get more money. But as The Guardian (U.K.) points out, those who pledge money often don't come through. The $2 billion includes $500 million from Japan and $530 million from the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank. Robert Smith, spokesman at the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), told The Guardian on Monday, "We should be very cautious about these figures. Let's put it this way: Large-scale disasters tend to result in mammoth pledges which . . . do not always materialize in their entirety. The figures look much higher than they really are. What will end up on the ground will be much less."

OCHA's Rudolf Muller noted, "There is definitely double accounting going on. A lot of the money will be swallowed up by the military or will have been diverted from existing loans."

In the case of the U.S., where the $350 million will come from is unclear. Officials at the U.S. Agency for International Development claimed that its emergency funds were exhausted—and that was when Bush was still talking about pledging only $35 million.

Officials point out that while it might appear that governments are offering more money, what actually happens is that they switch aid money between existing sources and other projects. Most of the time, the promised amounts haven't materialized. As an example, The Guardian cites Bam, the Iranian city destroyed by an earthquake a year ago. At the time, foreign nations and organizations promised $1.1 billion, but only $17.5 million ever came through. When Mozambique faced huge flood damage in 2000, nations promised $400 million, but less than $200 million materialized. In 1988, Hurricane Mitch killed 9,000 people and left 3 million homeless in Honduras and Nicaragua. Governments promised $3.5 billion, and development banks pledged $5.2 billion more. But only a third of that was received.

In the aftermath of the tsunami, some of the money, especially in the case of the military, might be reallocated from existing funds. Jasmine Whitbread, international director at Oxfam, said, "We are concerned that humanitarian aid could be sucked from other crises, such as Sudan and Congo, where the needs are just as great."

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