When America Does Good Things in the World, People Appreciate it

If you are reading this article—meaning you were thick-skinned enough to weather last week’s deluge of bad news without forsaking the media for good (as, I must confess, I was tempted to do)—let me reward your fortitude by promising not to talk about the multitude of depressing political issues. I won’t write about Coakley’s stupendous defeat at the hands of Republican Scott Brown in Massachusetts, for instance, which may effectively kill health care reform legislation. Or about the Supreme Court’s latest decision authorizing unfettered corporate campaign spending. Or about the slew of top-level politicians, from both parties, rushing to dissociate themselves from Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke in order to appease misdirected populist outrage.

Buried among such gems was a less distressing story. Ironically, the news came from Haiti, the last place anyone would expect to find such reprieve.

The destruction in Haiti is awful. The London Telegraph reports that the number of collected dead bodies has already reached 50,000, and Haitian officials say the total death toll might number over 100,000. Compounding the desperation is the state of anarchy, fear, and anger which pervades in the wake of any horrific natural disaster—remember New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. The difference, of course, is that the earthquake which afflicted Port-au-Prince has wrought devastation magnitudes greater on a nation magnitudes poorer. Prisons have collapsed, releasing thousands of the city’s inmates out into the streets. Many have resorted to looting and violence in their frustration with the slow, difficult aid process. Photographs and written accounts coming from the island testify to the desperation of the disaster firsthand.

So dark are the events in Haiti that it might seem foolish and insensitive to attempt to salvage something positive from the rubble. But it is important that we recognize the valuable efforts of American aid workers and the gratitude and support for American foreign policy that they inspire.

Last week, the White House released an amazing video clip of a Los Angeles Urban Search and Rescue team, assigned to Haiti to assist in aid efforts, pulling a victim out of a collapsed building. The rescuers treat the extricated woman with utmost dignity, immediately covering her naked body with blankets and carefully lifting her away from the rubble. As onlookers get a glimpse of the survivor, there is a collective gasp, then a smattering of applause. Finally, they break into cheers of “USA! USA!” Apparently, the woman lives. We hear daily about the extensive rescue efforts underway in Haiti, the amount of economic aid pouring in, the tales of survivors being pulled from buildings hundreds of hours after being trapped inside. But all of this can feel quite abstract and far away. It is absolutely riveting to see such an amazing rescue firsthand. The pride and respect for the American rescuers hits home.

Or, we might be inclined to play the cynic. Wasn’t the video released as a propaganda piece by the White House intended to bolster American image? Haven’t other equally amazing rescues been achieved by British, French, and Haitian rescuers? Does one publicized rescue make up for the numerous instances in which American foreign policy has resulted in widespread death or poverty?

All three questions have merit, but they miss the point. Just about any way you choose to look at it, the rescue shows that sometimes, if not all the time, the United States can wield power effectively and beneficently. Moreover, we can do so in a way that fosters respect and goodwill towards the United States from non-American citizens—the implications of which should speak for themselves. One of the greatest challenges in modern American foreign policy is coming to understand anti-American sentiment, and, with that understanding, working to combat it. It is self-evident that terrorism and insurgencies will not go away just because we kill their members in large numbers. Since this is the case, the problem becomes about finding alternative ways to defuse anti-Americanism.

This problem is often depicted as an “ideological conflict” or something of the like. The strategy conceived by some Americans involves actively championing American (of course, not uniquely American) principles like democracy, free-market capitalism, and gender equality. But it seems like there is a better, simpler way to go about confronting the problem, of which the rescue efforts in Haiti are a conspicuous illustration. Instead of seeing an ideological “conflict,” we should see opportunities to bring a fresh image of the United States to disparate peoples through aid and security. That is, if we are taking the concept of our own national security seriously, we need more examples of true American leadership, and more crowds, like the one depicted in the video clip, inspired by our efforts.

We can point to concrete results of such policies. In the wake of the 2004 Indonesian tsunami, for example, the United States and U.S.-based nonprofit organizations took a leading role, donating hundreds of millions of dollars in aid, volunteering rescue teams, and coordinating much of the recovery effort. Granted, the U.S. aid pledges actually began quite sluggishly, only burgeoning to the appropriate scale after an outcry of public sympathy and support. But once we got our act together, it made an impact. One survey found that after the recovery efforts, the U.S. approval rating in Indonesia spiked 24 percentage points. More importantly, Osama bin Laden’s support dropped by 30 percentage points. The overriding trend seems clear and logical. By acting as a responsible world power, we undermine terrorists’ anti-American arguments.

As stated earlier, it is not my intention to call attention away from the horrific situation in Haiti, or to suggest that aid efforts should be undertaken solely to achieve political ends. But if the United States can help contribute towards some kind of a recovery in Haiti, it will go far in reconfirming my faith in our nation as an important world leader. More importantly, it will reconfirm the faith of many others. So I should end by paying my respects to the members of the L.A. USAR team, whose brave efforts might go a lot further than they realize.


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