A Marshall Plan for South Asia

Editorial

Los Angeles Times

January 2, 2005

If a tsunami were to strike Northern Europe, killing more than 100,000 people from Ireland to Sweden, does anybody think it would take President Bush 72 hours to speak up about the tragedy and call leaders of the devastated countries?

In fairness to the vacationing president, the full magnitude of the natural disaster in the Indian Ocean wasn't apparent immediately after the undersea earthquake and the ensuing tsunami struck a week ago today. Still, there is no disputing that the first response of the American president and government, seen as omnipotent in much of the world, was lackadaisical and stingy. When Bush finally spoke Wednesday, Spain's pledge of relief funds was nearly double that of the U.S., and even that U.S. contribution ($35 million) came only after heavy criticism of Washington.

All of this conveyed the impression that Americans don't value the lives of people in poor countries as much as they value their own, or European, lives. Most of us have been guilty of shrugging our shoulders in the past over natural disasters in South Asia. How much attention did we pay in 1991, for instance, when a cyclone claimed nearly 140,000 lives in Bangladesh?

Bush's announcement Friday that the United States will contribute $350 million, 10 times the earlier amount, can go far to show that Washington will act boldly overseas in response to natural calamities, not just military threats. Sending his brother Jeb to the disaster area also symbolizes the U.S. concern. But we also urge Bush to propose a Marshall Plan-like strategy for the region that would commit billions of dollars for long-term programs like water purification and improved sanitation systems.

The president would be wise to travel to the region in coming weeks. There is no need for a grandstanding tour of devastated communities, but a respectful visit to national capitals to express our nation's condolences and to ask how the president could help would go a long way toward rehabilitating the U.S. image in the world.

If conservatives in the president's own party balk at a multibillion-dollar Marshall Plan for South Asia, Bush shouldn't hesitate to employ his favorite marketing ploy: Peg the effort to the war on terror by pointing out the strategic importance of the region. Indonesia, the most severely affected nation, also happens to be the world's largest Muslim country, where most practice a moderate form of the religion but the government battles extremists.

Offering humanitarian assistance could inoculate Indonesians against sympathy for terrorists. An all-out effort by the U.S. to help a Muslim country would also counter those across the Muslim world who preach that the West is out to undermine all Muslim societies.

Beyond Indonesia, Sri Lanka fights Tamil terrorists, Thailand worries about Muslim separatists in the south, and India works hard to maintain peace among its many religious and ethnic communities while seeking to improve ties with Pakistan. All four nations are natural allies of the U.S., democracies of the kind Bush repeatedly says he wants to see flourish.

The U.S. spends a bit over one-tenth of 1% of its national income on aid, less than any other developed nation. A massive American-led Marshall Plan for South Asia would cost only a fraction of the nearly $225 billion requested so far to pay for the Iraq war. And, without a doubt, it would be a far wiser investment in the war on terror.