REVIEW: Article

The Tsunami: A Challenge and An Opportunity

When a tsunami of biblical proportions pounded the coast of Indonesia and other Indian Ocean nations on the quiet morning of December 26, nobody imagined the scale of the devastation or the loss of life that would finally be seen. The initial report numbered the casualties in Indonesia at about 90; in a couple of hours, it rose to several hundred; and in one week’s time, the death toll reached the tens of thousands. When the number went over 100,000, Indonesian authorities stopped counting the dead. The tsunami has reduced once vibrant areas of northern Sumatra and Aceh to rubble, altering the area’s topography beyond recognition. It was one of the worst natural disasters in living memory with a horrible toll on the people living on the Acehnese coast.

When I asked Vice President Jusuf Kalla what we could do to help, he said what Indonesia needed most was logistical support.

Within a few days, the Vice President had his answer; the United States (US) military’s remarkable lift capacity was in full swing. C-130s and Seahawk helicopters were busy transporting disaster relief supplies to tens of thousands of survivors stranded in remote villages unreachable by land transportation. More than 2,800 relief missions were flown, nearly 20,000 medical procedures were performed, and 4,000 tons of supplies were delivered. As the relief efforts moved from the first stage of emergency response and settled into the long-term effort to rebuild and reconstruct the damaged areas, the USS aircraft carrier Abraham Lincoln bid farewell to Indonesia on February 4 followed by the USNS hospital ship Mercy, which departed Aceh on March 16.

The US military effort was magnificent and deeply appreciated by the Indonesians. The images of US service men and women helping provide supplies or assist the injured appeared over and over in the media. The cooperation and coordination of all of those involved in the relief effort made a tremendous difference and a great contribution in which all Americans can take great pride and satisfaction.

In close coordination with the military, the US Agency for International Development (USAID) has been in the lead of our country’s humanitarian mission from day one of this horrible disaster. USAID and other US government agencies worked closely with the government of Indonesia and international organizations to provide emergency food assistance, relief supplies, shelter, water and sanitation, health and other support, worth more than $42 million. We worked hard to ensure our various assistance efforts meshed closely, and our USAID people and military personnel worked side by side to ensure the effectiveness of our overall effort.

American generosity and caring manifested themselves in private sector donations and in the hard work of many nongovernmental organizations. The Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University reports that the amount pledged by private donors and corporations in the US exceeded $1.1 billion, with $940 million of that already contributed. Former President Clinton noted that one in three American households contributed to the tsunami relief efforts. That total more than matches the $950 million pledged by the US government for its humanitarian aid to Indian Ocean nations affected by the December tsunami. Almost three months after the tsunami, American donors—from private citizens to large corporations—are currently engaged in every component of rebuilding both the infrastructure and the lives of people who have lost friends and families, homes, villages and livelihoods.

Our efforts have not gone unnoticed. I am heartened by the result of a recent poll conducted in Indonesia, which suggests a dramatic change in public perception of the United States. According to the poll, carried out by the Indonesian pollster Lembaga Survei Indonesia, 65 percent of Indonesian people now view the United States more favorably, owing to its humanitarian assistance in the aftermath of this tragedy. The same poll of 1,200 adults in Indonesia showed backing for Osama bin Laden has dropped 35 percent, from 58 percent in 2003 to 23 percent today.What does this substantial change in the attitude of Indonesians toward America mean when support for America in its fight against global terrorism and in its effort to build democracy has seen decline in some corners of the world, especially in Muslim countries? What has created this stunning turnaround in public opinion in the world’s most populous Muslim country?

This positive development in Indonesian public perception of the US has reminded us once again that whatever the perception of specific US policies, the core values of caring, of humanitarianism and a desire to help in moments of great need that are part of American culture have never been at question. Over the years, Indonesia has had no better friend than the United States. While we have not always agreed on all issues, there is still a great reservoir of good will, based in part on an appreciation of the basic values of American society. Moments of crisis like this have reinforced that understanding and serve as convincing repudiation of those who seek to characterize the US as evil.

The relief effort did nothing new. It merely reminded old friends of who we are and what we believe in. The polls show that many Indonesians who hold positive views of the US do so because we “help other countries.” We do this because it reflects who we are as a nation. When I am asked why we did what we did, I have not hesitated to answer: “We did it because it was the right thing to do.” When you do the right thing, good things happen, and that is the way to build a good relationship.

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United States Ambassador to Indonesia