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By helping tsunami victims, America has a PD opportunity

We Are the World
By sending help to tsunami victims, America takes advantage of a public diplomacy opportunity.

Tuesday, January 4, 2005 12:01 a.m. EST

Colin Powell and Jeb Bush are now on a diplomatic mission to the nations hit by the tsunami. But as residents from Thailand in Southeast Asia to Somalia on the horn of Africa pick through the debris, it will not be lost on them that not only are food, fresh water and other necessities streaming in from the free societies of the world, but also that a large portion of those necessities are arriving on American military transports.

This may seem unremarkable in America. After all, it is the U.S. military that has the "lift" capacity. But this tsunami is putting on display exactly what United Nations and European bureaucrats are loath to admit: that the U.S. and its military are forces for good in the world. From the wealth and freedom that allow Americans to generously give to those in need to the military infrastructure that enables much of that aid to be delivered, this natural disaster is an advertisement for the type of societies that best serve the people of the world.

The Saudi royal family may write a few checks. Even the Iranian mullahs may be cajoled into handing over a few rials. But broad relief requires tapping the creativity, insight and generosity of a wide cross-section of society. And it is only the free societies of the world that have both the wherewithal and the ability to pinpoint and quickly meet emerging needs. That's something that goes a long way in undermining the message al Qaeda leaders have been preaching for a better part of a decade. America isn't seeking world domination. Tsunami help is coming with no strings attached.

This simple fact has to be driving Osama bin Laden bananas. Only a month ago the news surfaced that al Qaeda operatives were training in Malaysia to carry out attacks in Thailand. Bin Laden's minions have also been active in Indonesia--which is both the world's largest Muslim nation and a democracy--and nearly every other country hit by this disaster. Now that Mother Nature has laid waste to the region herself, the terrorists aren't about to turn around and help in the rebuilding. It's clear that the vision al Qaeda has for the region more closely resembles the beachfronts after the deadly waves came crashing ashore than before, when they were still resort communities teeming with fun.
By responding with generosity, it is also clear that the vision Americans share is of all nations prospering. Liberty for all is more than a political ideal; it's also the foundation of President Bush's foreign policy. Admittedly this is partly for the selfish reason that prosperous countries are unlikely to breed terror. Nonetheless, the policy is benefiting Afghans, Iraqis and Muslims around the globe.

Which brings us back to the Euroweenies and U.N. bureaucrats and American politicians who've spent much of the past three years complaining that Mr. Bush's "unilateralist" policies would alienate key allies in the war on terror. The U.S. government has pledged $350 million in disaster relief--a figure that will almost certainly rise in the coming weeks and months--which is being more than matched by private donations from all across America. The U.N. might talk a good game, but when the water came in around them, the people of Southeast Asia didn't hold much of a grudge with Mr. Bush. Indeed, the question quickly became: What is America going to do to help?

The point here isn't to squeeze a political opportunity out of what may be the worst natural disaster in recorded history. Rather it is to recognize that what's at stake in the war on terror is also what was nearly swept away by the sea--civilization itself. It won't be lost on the people of Thailand as they face their own terrorist problem that the same American military that is battling al Qaeda is now helping them battle the brutal natural world as well. The training exercises the U.S. military regularly conducts around the world with other nations' armed forces will now take on an added significance.
There are times in life when we are all called to stand up and chose sides in the great moral struggles of our time. What the people of Southeast Asia are seeing is that in a region al Qaeda has been actively targeting, it is America that is standing up when it counts. It's hard to see how that Bush policy will alienate the very people al Qaeda seeks to dominate. Quite to the contrary, it is the American system--free people governing themselves--that is now standing shoulder to shoulder with those who have lost nearly everything.

Mr. Miniter is assistant editor of His column appears Tuesdays.

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