The Bush administration launched an aggressive defense today of its response to the Asian tsunami, pushing back against critics who say the U.S. is offering too little in the face of mass devastation.
The president, vacationing on his ranch here, made his first public appearance since the waves crashed ashore, killing more than 80,000 — saying that the $35 million in cash assistance and additional military help is only the beginning.
"We're a very generous, kindhearted nation," Bush told reporters. "What you're beginning to see is a typical response from America.
"First of all, we provide immediate cash relief. And then there will be an assessment of the damage, so that the relief is — the next tranche of relief will be spent wisely. That's what's happening now."
Bush announced that the U.S. has formed a "core group" of nations with India, Japan and Australia to coordinate relief. He said he expressed his condolences this morning in telephone calls to the leaders of India, Sri Lanka and Thailand — and he said those leaders expressed their gratitude for U.S. assistance.
Bush's appearance — coming four days after the tsunami — appeared to be the result of recent criticism from some who said the U.S. — as the world's leading economic power — was not pledging enough support.
The most widely publicized criticism came from the United Nations' emergency relief coordinator, Jan Egeland, who said this week: "It is beyond me why we are so stingy. Actually, foreign assistance for many countries now is 0.1 or 0.2% of gross national income. That is stingy."
Asked about that remark, Bush was prepared with statistics.
"Take, for example, in the year 2004, our government provided $2.4 billion in food, in cash, in humanitarian relief to cover the disasters for last year. That's $2.4 billion," he said. "That's 40% of all the relief aid given in the world last year, was provided by the United States government."
Addressing reporters at the State Department later in the day, Andrew Natsios, director of the U.S. Agency for International Development, offered a similarly vehement defense of the U.S. record.
"We're the leaders," he said.
"It takes money, by the way, to move an expeditionary force into the region," he said. "In other words, we're diverting assets, which is part of our overall aid package. We'll continue to provide assets."
And the president said Americans will give their own money to aid organizations.
"The American people will be very generous themselves," he said. "I mean, the $2.4 billion was public money — of course provided by the taxpayers. But there's also a lot of individual giving in America. In this case, I think it's very important for Americans who want to give to provide cash to organizations that will be able to focus resources and assets to meet specific needs."
Bush's public appearance came one day after his spokesman deflected repeated questions from reporters on why the president chose to remain out of view amid a disaster far deadlier than the 2001 terror attacks that redefined his presidency and served as the backdrop for his reelection campaign this year.
The war in Iraq and the U.S. effort to curb world terrorism, which have strained military and financial resources, has spurred opposition to U.S. foreign policy in many capitals.
Bush spoke with reporters after participating in a previously scheduled National Security Council meeting — via secure videoconferencing — from the ranch. The participants included Vice President Dick Cheney, Secretary of State Colin Powell, National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and Natsios.
White House spokesman Trent Duffy told reporters that Bush also has asked Commerce Secretary Don Evans and Interior Secretary Gale Norton to assess U.S. preparedness for tsunamis.
Separately, a senior administration official flatly rejected any suggestion that Bush may have looked insensitive by not speaking out sooner about the catastrophe.
The president's overarching concern was to get the relief efforts underway, the official said. "He wanted some foreign diplomatic work done prior to making a statement, which he did today."
Bush spoke out because "it got to the point today where the president was briefed not just on the financial response but the broader coalition efforts," the official added.
"It's not the president's style to use tragedies for personal gain," the aide said, recalling how Bush had rejected advice that he greet the crew of a U.S. surveillance airplane after its release by China in the spring of 2001. "He doesn't like to be a distraction."