The announcement by Asian leaders that they will hold a summit meeting Thursday in Jakarta, Indonesia, to coordinate aid for victims of last Sunday's tsunami presents the Bush...
WACO, Texas — The announcement by Asian leaders that they will hold a summit meeting Thursday in Jakarta, Indonesia, to coordinate aid for victims of last Sunday’s tsunami presents the Bush administration with the first of many choices about whether to seize on a sudden disaster to change the nature of how President Bush approaches Asia in his second term.
Until now, the region has fit into Bush’s grand strategy primarily as a second front in his battle against terrorism, and as a place where future conflicts — with North Korea, between China and Taiwan or India and Pakistan — must be defused. But beyond that, his agenda has been modest, at best.
Now, as the United States joins the rush to deliver aid to the region, some officials inside the administration and many outside experts say Bush has a chance, particularly in Indonesia, to advance the cause he talked about so often in the presidential campaign: supporting the spread of democracy.
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“No one could have seen this coming,” John Lewis Gaddis, a professor of history at Yale, said yesterday. “But it represents an opportunity to try to move beyond the frustration of Iraq and pre-emption and his tensions with the Islamic world. It is an example of an area where the U.S., with its financial resources and its logistical capability, can work in a cause that no one can argue with.”
But it is also an area where symbolism and real action on the ground will merge in a blur of imagery that could define how America is viewed in the world’s most populous region and one of its most volatile.
In Indonesia in particular, anti-Americanism has increased since the battle against Islamic militancy began. Fairly or unfairly, the negative view of the United State’s intentions toward the Islamic world worsened with the Iraq invasion and its aftermath. So now, every decision he makes will be examined for what it reveals of American intentions and generosity and for what it says about how American power will be exercised.
Yesterday, on the last day of Bush’s weeklong vacation at his Texas ranch, officials said they were doubtful that he would join the prime ministers of Japan and Australia, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan and other leaders at the meeting in Jakarta. Secretary of State Colin L. Powell and the president’s Bush’s brother, Gov. Jeb Bush of Florida, are already scheduled to be in the region, and a summit meeting in Jakarta, the site of a series of bombings attributed to groups with al-Qaida sympathies, poses a host of security concerns.
“I don’t think the president will decide that he has to attend personally to make his own commitment to aiding the victims clear,” a senior administration official said.
There seems to be little doubt now that the administration, after spending the week grasping the magnitude of the disaster that stretches from Sumatra to Sri Lanka to Somalia, is committed to providing considerable relief aid.
Stung by the criticism from a senior U.N. official early in the week that the Bush administration’s general approach to foreign aid has been “stingy,” Bush on Friday ordered that American aid be increased to $350 million from $35 million.
In a symbolic move, he also ordered American flags lowered to half staff, an unusual measure for foreign disasters.
Less certain is whether and how he will use the opportunity to repair some of the damage done in the past three years.
“I would hope that the tone of the administration in the next term would be one of trying to find opportunities like this, and to make use of them,” Yale’s Gaddis said.
That is particularly the case in Asia. Bush’s main diplomatic effort there so far has been in organizing Japan, South Korea, China and Russia to press North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons. He has periodically intervened to cool passions between China and Taiwan. But these have largely been efforts at preserving the status quo, avoiding the eruption of new crises while Iraq is still aflame and he hopes to focus on the Middle East.
Robert Barry, ambassador to Indonesia under President Clinton, said yesterday that so far there has been relatively little engagement with places like Indonesia — even if it has become, since the fall of President Suharto six years ago, an example of a rising, if uneasy, Muslim democracy.
“It’s on the edge,” Barry said. “The popularity of the U.S. is at an all-time low in Indonesia, and now there is a hell of a problem in Sumatra, as frustration mounts about getting supplies in.
“It’s a huge opportunity for the president,” he said, referring to the chance to change America’s image in the region. “So far the response has been a bit slow, but the chance is there to make a big difference.”