President Bush, under pressure over the pace and scale of American aid to Asian tsunami victims, abruptly raised the U.S. contribution to $350 million on Friday, 10 times the amount pledged just two days ago.
The White House suggested U.S. assistance could rise still higher after a delegation headed by Secretary of State Colin Powell tours devastated areas next week and reports back to the president on the needs of an estimated 5 million tsunami survivors.
“The disaster around the Indian Ocean continues to grow,” Bush said in a statement that emphasized U.S. intentions to coordinate immediate humanitarian relief to Asia through an international coalition including India, Japan and Australia.
“Our contributions will continue to be revised as the full effects of this terrible tragedy become clearer,” said the statement released by the White House while Bush vacationed at his ranch in Crawford, Texas.
The president said the dramatic increase in assistance, which eclipsed a $250 million aid pledge from the World Bank, was based on the initial findings of U.S. assessment teams in hard-hit areas of southeastern and central Asia, and on recommendations from senior officials including Powell.
The White House said Bush spoke to the prime ministers of Britain, Italy and Canada on Friday about the relief effort under way in devastated coastal areas of the Indian Ocean region.
Two key Republican lawmakers — Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist of Tennessee and House of Representatives Speaker Dennis Hastert of Illinois — said they would support White House requests next year to pay for the higher contribution.
The increased assistance was only the latest step the Bush administration and Congress to bolster America’s contribution to relief efforts amid criticism that its initial response had been slow and miserly.
The $350 million sum far outstripped relief contributions from any other country and increased total aid pledges from nearly 40 nations by about 28 percent to nearly $1.36 billion. Before Friday’s announcement, the biggest donors had been Britain with $96 million and Sweden with $80 million.
WHITE HOUSE RESPONSE CRITICIZED
But the larger number did not insulate the Bush administration from critics.
“It became more evident that $35 million was just not appropriate to the scale of the disaster. And $350 million is not appropriate either,” remarked Brookings Institution analyst Ivo Daalder, who said the daunting humanitarian need could require major involvement by the U.S. military and NATO.
“The administration’s tendency has been to approach this like any other natural disaster,” he added.
Bush initially waited until Wednesday, three days after the tsunami struck 13 countries from Malaysia to East Africa, to announce $35 million in aid for the region where at least 124,000 people have died in the catastrophe.
Critics quickly compared the dollar sum to $13.6 billion in aid for hurricane-battered U.S. states that Congress passed speedily in the run-up to last month’s U.S. elections.
On Thursday, the president announced that his brother, Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, and Powell would lead a delegation of experts to the region to assess the need for further U.S. assistance.
Republicans and Democrats in Congress are set to work on an tsunami aid package that lawmakers promised would provide generous assistance soon, while the U.S. military has sent about 20 cargo and patrol planes and an aircraft carrier group to assist in relief efforts.
It was not clear which government programs were being tapped for the $350 million in tsunami aid.
White House spokesman Trent Duffy said none of the funds were from an $18 billion sum set aside for reconstruction in Iraq, which some lawmakers have identified as a ready source of relief financing.