Secretary of State Colin Powell and President Bush’s brother, Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, are leading a team of experts traveling to South Asia to get a close-up look at the devastation.
“The carnage is of a scale that defies comprehension,” President Bush, giving his weekly radio address, said of the Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunamis that have killed more than 123,000 people.
The delegation’s itinerary has not been finalized, but Bush wants officials to meet with regional leaders and international organizations and report back on what additional assistance the United States can provide. Military helicopters were ferrying disaster supplies into the region.
“We will be coordinating the stops with the countries involved so as not to disrupt relief operations,” State Department spokesman Lou Fintor said Saturday.
Powell discussed relief operations Saturday with German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer, Fintor said.
U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan also is making a fact-finding trip to the region, it was learned Saturday.
Having substantially increased its disaster assistance to $350 million, the Bush administration is focused on the logistics of getting clean water, food and other supplies to people rebuilding their lives – and helping to bury the dead.
“The task they face is difficult,” said Bush, who issued a proclamation calling for U.S. flags to be flown at half-staff this week in honor of the dead. “Their relief resources are stretched nearly to the limit,” he said. “Communications, roads and medical facilities have been badly damaged. Disease has become a very real threat.”
Bush’s decision to increase the aid came amid mounting criticism that the United States was slow to respond and that he was slow to publicly express his condolences.
“Clearly, our first step forward was not sufficient,” said P.J. Crowley, a retired colonel who served as a Pentagon spokesman in both Republican and Democratic administrations and was a White House national security aide in the Clinton administration. “This is an event of literally epic proportions and for the White House to take 72 hours before the president was visible on this, I think was a mistake.”
Crowley said the disaster offers the administration a chance to improve U.S. relations with the Islamic world, where anti-American sentiment has been on the rise since the Iraq war. Indonesia, one of the countries hardest hit by the tsunamis, has the world’s largest Muslim population.
“Indonesia is one of those countries where al-Qaeda has been active,” Crowley said. “It is in our long-term interest to develop an even stronger relationship with Indonesia and other countries in the region. We should look at this within the prism of the war on terror, and if we fail to respond effectively, it will be an opportunity lost.”
David L. Phillips, vice president of the Council on Foreign Relations, a private world affairs group, said that a successful U.S. aid effort could take the edge off of anti-American sentiment in the region.
“The president of Indonesia said to the president very early on after Sept. 11 that she was going to work with him, but American popularity in Indonesia has plummeted,” Phillips said. “If we’re seen as being generous and playing a role in helping Indonesia deal with this, it buys some political space, some political cushion for the president of Indonesia to help Bush with the war on terror.”
To help the survivors, the U.S. military has launched one of its largest disaster relief missions in history.
At the same time, Canada and the Netherlands have joined a core group that the United States formed earlier this week with India, Japan and Australia to help coordinate relief efforts with the United Nations.
“They are resolving potential bottlenecks,” Fintor said. “The chief one at this moment are supplies at airports awaiting final delivery.”
The U.S. death toll stands at 15, with eight dead in Thailand and seven in Sri Lanka, “although we fear there may be more,” Fintor said. “We have been able to account for many hundreds of those whose families have contacted us, although new calls come in constantly.”
Since Dec. 26, the State Department’s toll-free hot line has fielded more than 6,000 inquiries from Americans wondering about the welfare and whereabouts of family members. U.S. embassy workers in the affected nations are working round the clock to issue no-fee passports, provide money and other assistance to Americans in the region.