Like tolerance, diplomacy is not something you achieve and then stuff in your pocket of accomplishments; it is something you practice throughout your entire life. Those really dedicated to diplomacy look for opportunities to practice it; those really, really dedicated to it make opportunities to practice it.
Two days ago I expressed my agitation at the US response to the catastrophe in Asia. When reading the press about nations' responses, the US response seem half-hearted. I wasn't the only one who noticed:
Although U.N. Emergency Relief Coordinator Jan Egeland yesterday withdrew his earlier comment [about 'stingy' nations], domestic criticism of Bush continued to rise. Skeptics said the initial aid sums -- as well as Bush's decision at first to remain cloistered on his Texas ranch for the Christmas holiday rather than speak in person about the tragedy -- showed scant appreciation for the magnitude of suffering and for the rescue and rebuilding work facing such nations as Sri Lanka, India, Thailand and Indonesia.
After a day of repeated inquiries from reporters about his public absence, Bush late yesterday afternoon announced plans to hold a National Security Council meeting by teleconference to discuss several issues, including the tsunami, followed by a short public statement.
Bush's deepened public involvement puts him more in line with other world figures. In Germany, Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder cut short his vacation and returned to work in Berlin because of the Indian Ocean crisis, which began with a gigantic underwater earthquake. In Britain, the predominant U.S. voice speaking about the disaster was not Bush but former president Bill Clinton, who in an interview with the BBC said the suffering was like something in a "horror movie," and urged a coordinated international response.
The real criticism of Bush here should not be that he stayed on his ranch or didn't make it clear enough how concerned the US was about the tragedy. The real criticism of Bush here is that he missed an important opportunity to repair his image in the world's public opinion. Let's face it, any US President can anger large portions of the rest of the world just by doing his job (i.e., putting America first), but a good deal of that anger and resentment can be nullified by demonstrating, when the opportunity presents itself, what real American values and compassion are all about.
I know this will strike some as opportunisitc diplomacy, but let's be real: Bush has an image problem among the peoples of many other countries and heading into his second inauguration, his people should be working overtime to improve it. He may have to make tough military decisions going forward that much of the rest of the world will disagree with again, he can't afford to look ambivalent in the face of a crisis this monumental...this human. I hope his handlers write a doozy of a speech for him later today.