By Robert S. Rivkin, Pacific News Service

President Bush bristled at the suggestion that the U.S. response to the horrendous Christmas tsunamis was ‘stingy.’ The writer suggests a way for the administration to improve America’s standing in the world’s eyes by proving that Americans care.


Dec 29, 2004 – When United Nations humanitarian aid chief Jan Egeland, from Norway, suggested that “rich countries” were “stingy” when it came to international disaster relief, his comment triggered petulant denials by Secretary of State Colin Powell and President Bush. “The United States is not stingy,” Powell told CNN. Bush called Egeland “misguided and ill-informed.” Since Mr. Egeland did not specifically mention the United States, these defensive reactions were puzzling.

Of course, at the time Egeland made his statement, the United States had earmarked only $15 million as emergency aid to the Christmas Tsunami disaster victims. After his remarks, the United States did commit another $20 million, and deployed some elements of the U.S. military to help the stricken countries.

Considering that hundreds of billions of dollars will be needed over the next 10 or 20 years to rebuild the infrastructure in the 12 suffering nations, as well as the survivors’ lives, the $35 million in immediate disaster relief is merely a drop in an ocean of need. The private relief agencies cannot alone calm the waters of this ocean.

Why hasn’t the Bush administration shown some imagination in convincing the world that Americans really care and are prepared to make a small sacrifice to help victims of this astonishingly destructive natural calamity? In the wake of the administration’s default, why hasn’t the Democratic “opposition” proposed something that will demonstrate to the world that Americans want to help and are not “stingy”? Especially these days, a dramatic proposal to assist victims of mass catastrophe might also improve our country’s tarnished image in many places in the world.

Here’s a simple proposal that would capture the world’s attention, and which a majority of Americans would almost certainly support. President Bush should announce that because of the colossal losses suffered by millions of people in Southeast Asia and East Africa, he will make an exception to his promise not to raise taxes. Bush should propose a Tsunami Disaster Relief Surtax for 2004 and 2005, with very simple components that everyone can understand.

For example, the president could propose a flat $50 surtax applicable to every American tax return with an adjusted gross income of between $25,000 and $40,000; a flat $75 surtax on every tax return with an adjusted gross income between $40,000 and $80,000; $100 for incomes over $80,000, and so on. This small assessment for two years would produce many billions of dollars, which could be placed into a fund which would support infrastructure repair and development over a period of at least 10 years in the stricken countries.

Since Americans, like others, are now experiencing both deep compassion for the surviving family members of the Tsunami’s victims and a sense of impotence at the sheer magnitude of the calamity, it is unlikely that there would be much opposition to such a proposal — especially if it contains an invitation to the other developed nations to provide similar funds. I believe that Americans would overwhelmingly embrace the proposal.

So — where is the imagination in our national leadership?


PNS contributor Robert S. Rivkin is a San Francisco lawyer who has trained foreign judges and prosecutors on human rights and rule of law issues for international development projects.

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