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Morton Abramowitz

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Facing the Pakistan Flood

Posted: 08/21/10 06:19 PM ET

Great natural disasters are a defining moment for nations and their friends. They have vast humanitarian and often political consequences, nationally and internationally

The Pakistan flood is another of those sudden earthshaking disasters. The continuing flood, already almost a month old, would have overwhelmed Pakistan no matter whether its President was ineptly slow to fly home to lead the rescue. The world has to help, but the American response -- almost always the most important for poorer countries -- has been slow, still inadequate, but growing.

In the first days of the Southeast Asia tsunami the Bush administration was rightly criticized for its slow response. That was quickly corrected. The U.S. navy was quickly on the scene, and Bill Clinton and Bush the elder were dispatched to shore up the effort and stimulate national and international response. Here too Indonesia and Thailand were basically allies, certainly not one as close as Pakistan has become. The Obama administration, however, initially fumbled in helping cope with the extraordinary Pakistan crisis.

The Economist (August 21) apparently takes the long view. It's not so bad, according to a recent editorial, that the world waited almost a month for a more vigorous response. It enables countries to move with greater certainty. It saves money, avoids error, and post-disaster fatigue. Only 1,475 have been killed (as far as we know but almost certainly understated); that's not so bad in a country of 170 million. Imagine if the coalition suddenly faced a huge natural calamity in England and took a few days to reconnoiter the scene to get a better understanding of the problem and only fifty people lost their lives. I doubt the Economist and certainly the British people would have been so forgiving.

With disasters of enormous if uncertain magnitude, two immediate responses are essential. One is a display of urgency, a determination to do something about the situation, and a call to the world for action that the U.S. can still do. That is particularly politically essential with impoverished but important allies. The second is to take nothing for granted and to assume the worst even as information is lacking and the dimensions of the crisis are unclear. Yes, that may be costly, even excessive in meeting relief needs, but if lives are to be saved and large numbers of dispossessed provided some relief the costs of delay can be staggering. Organization simply cannot be the standard of response.

George Bush failed both requirements in Katrina. Obama failed the first in the man-made Gulf spill. His initial response was slow and tepid. On the Pakistan flood he was also slow in dramatizing the crisis and tardy in providing significant assistance. He proceeded in increments, now reaching 150 million dollars, when clearly far more funds in any event would be needed, and it was important to galvanize the country and the world. Certainly he did not have to worry about somehow finding say 300 million in his government that would have made clear that the U.S. was responding to the urgency and size of the disaster. It might have led, supplemented by special envoys, to a greater outpouring of funds by the rest of the world. Nor has he yet brought to bear the greater lift for the delivery of assistance, so crucial in a disaster of this sort. It is hard to believe our government could find only 17 helicopters, despite the war next door. Certainly lift capacity alone could not deal with the crisis but it would have helped plenty of people. No clone of Bill Clinton has been found and Secretary Clinton is yet to visit the area. The administration is at least now playing serious catch-up ball.

Some saw a more robust American response as a way of changing the Pakistan's public animosity toward the U.S. That now appears to be happening -- the early days are forgotten everywhere except by the dispossessed -- and should continue as the aid effort grows. How long that will last is uncertain. Many also worry that extremist groups will take advantage of the massive plight and score points by providing assistance more effectively than the Pakistan government. Those concerns are serious but hard to analyze, and rescue and rehabilitation have a long course to run. Who knows how many extremist organizations have also suffered or are equally unable to deliver assistance? In any event greater foreign assistance should certainly help on that score,

But the humanitarian issue is simply one that, when great masses of people are in danger, the U.S. has an unrivaled ability to respond and prod the world. It is a vital calling. We now wait to see what the US and the world will do not only on binding up flood wounds but on massive reconstruction needs. Pakistan is in deep trouble for a long time to come. It will need huge assistance. The planned seven and half billion over five years in economic aid -- anemic for its purpose but politically saleable -- seems even more meager.

Abramowitz is a senior fellow at The Century Foundation