01.17.10

Doing Disaster Relief Right

There’s a reason President Obama’s response to catastrophe has been so much better than Bush’s. It helps to believe in the power of government to aid lives.

Here’s something you’re not supposed to say: Barack Obama has responded to the earthquake in Haiti much better than George W. Bush responded to Hurricane Katrina or the Indian Ocean tsunami. Here’s something you’re really not supposed to say: He’s responded better because he’s a liberal. Liberals see responding to humanitarian disasters, including overseas, as a more fundamental responsibility of government than conservatives do. Don’t take my word for it—listen to the nation’s most influential conservative commentators themselves.

Liberals see helping those in agony—even in other lands—as a big part of what the American government is supposed to do.

The fact that Obama has responded better is obvious—pundits and politicians just aren’t supposed to say so for fear of politicizing a tragedy. Within half an hour of learning of the Haitian earthquake, the White House released a statement. The president cleared his public schedule the following day, and received five briefings in 26 hours. The secretaries of State and Defense both cut short trips to Asia, and Obama and Hillary Clinton each named one of their closest aides (Dennis McDonough at the National Security Council, Cheryl Mills at State) to coordinate disaster relief. Hillary personally visited the island, and Vice President Joe Biden met Haitian-Americans in Miami. Within a day of the earthquake, a U.S. aircraft carrier was en route and Obama had announced $100 million in aid.

Compare that to the Bush administration’s response to Hurricane Katrina. Twelve hours before Katrina reached the U.S., Homeland Security Director Michael Chertoff flew to Atlanta to attend a conference on bird flu, even though he and the president had already been warned that a major hurricane could breach New Orleans’ levees. On Tuesday morning, August 30, a day after the hurricane hit, Bush flew to California to commemorate America’s World War II victory over Japan; then returned to Crawford, Texas, to continue his vacation. On Wednesday, he flew over the devastated Gulf Coast, but didn’t set foot there till Friday. Even Louisiana Republican Senator David Vitter gave the administration’s response an F.

Similarly, it took a vacationing Bush three days to make a public statement about the Indian Ocean tsunami that killed a quarter of a million people. His administration’s initial aid pledge was $15 million, which led the U.N. undersecretary-general for humanitarian affairs to call the response of America and other Western countries “stingy.” Stung by the criticism, Bush later increased U.S. aid, and oversaw a substantial humanitarian effort by the American military. But as with Katrina, his initial response was passive, if not downright negligent.

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It’s true that Obama has the benefit of hindsight. He knows that the inept response to Katrina damaged Bush’s presidency (and that he himself was sharply criticized for taking too long to publicly discuss the Christmas bomb attack). But there’s more to it than that. The discrepancy between Obama and Bush mirrors a broader discrepancy between liberals and conservatives. Last Wednesday—the first full day of earthquake coverage in the U.S. press—MSNBC’s three signature evening shows (Keith Olbermann, Rachel Maddow, and Chris Matthews) devoted a total of more than two hours to Haiti, according to the liberal group Media Matters. By contrast, Fox’s three signature shows (Bill O’Reilly, Sean Hannity, Glenn Beck) devoted less than seven minutes. Noting that MSNBC (not to mention CNN) had sent some of its top anchors and reporters to the island, Rush Limbaugh actually boasted on his radio show that “I am… the top media figure not broadcasting from Haiti.”

And it wasn’t just that Limbaugh, O’Reilly, Hannity and Beck largely ignored the earthquake. They implicitly explained why they were ignoring it: because they didn’t believe an aggressive Washington response would do any good. “The USA will once again pour millions into that country, much of which will be stolen,” declared O’Reilly. “Once again we will do more than anyone else on the planet and a year from today Haiti will be just as bad as it is today.” On his radio show, Beck argued against any non-military assistance from Washington. “We’ve poured millions into there,” added Limbaugh, “and it’s pouring it down a drain.”

In fact, recent foreign aid to Haiti has been anything but money down a drain. Largely because of a highly successful U.N. peacekeeping effort, Haiti in 2008 held a peaceful democratic election. Five days before the earthquake hit, the country got its first international hotel franchise in a decade.

But O’Reilly and Limbaugh’s comments are revealing less for what they say about Haiti than what they say about the American right. In their private lives, American conservatives are at least as charitable as their liberal counterparts. But when it comes to government to government charity—the kind that the Obama administration is practicing now—conservatives are far more skeptical. They tend to believe that there’s little the American government can do to fix countries like Haiti, and that the harder Washington tries, the more it will neglect the real business of foreign policy: fighting America’s enemies. In the 1990s, when the Clinton administration invested heavily in Haitian nation-building, Republicans accused it of practicing “foreign policy as social work.” And it’s significant that both Limbaugh and O’Reilly compared Obama’s fast response to the Haitian earthquake to his slower response to the Christmas bombing—the implication being that Obama is so focused on helping the wretched of the earth that he can’t protect America.

“This is what he lives for,” Limbaugh jeered. “He lives for serving those in misery.” In a sense, Limbaugh is right. Liberals like Obama have greater faith in government than do conservatives, and they’re less nationalistic. As a result, they see helping those in agony—even in other lands—as a big part of what the American government is supposed to do. They also believe that if the American government does that work well, it will generate goodwill that makes America safer.

Most conservatives don’t believe that, which helps explain why Bush responded more passively to Katrina and the tsunami than Obama has to the Haitian earthquake. As neocons like to say, ideas have consequences. And luckily for the ravaged people of Haiti, the ideas of Bill O’Reilly, Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh don’t permeate 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue anymore.

Peter Beinart, senior political writer for The Daily Beast, is an associate professor of journalism and political science at City University of New York and a senior fellow at the New America Foundation.