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Crisis avoidance

The president's failure to lead on relief and development could open the door to future conflicts

Issue: "2010 Election: The Governors," Oct. 23, 2010

With midterm elections barreling down on his party like an F5 tornado, President Barack Obama could hope for an attention-grabbing disaster to rivet the nation's attention and revive his dismal approval ratings.

Consider the case of fellow Harvard graduate Sebastián Piñera. The president of Chile has had by most accounts a bad year. An 8.8 magnitude earthquake in February killed over 500 in his country and actually moved the capital of Santiago 10 inches west. With a massive cleanup still underway and a long string of aftershocks came the Aug. 5 mine cave-in that trapped 33 miners nearly a half mile underground.

Throughout, Piñera has remained one mobilized man. He has traveled to the Atacama Desert for extended visits to the San Jose copper and gold mine site, consoling family members, holding their babies, and speaking directly to the miners via cable strung 2,000 feet down to where they are trapped. He inspected the drilling rigs everyone hopes will bring them to safety, perhaps as soon as this month, in part due to Piñera's forceful attention. And since the cave-in, he has watched his approval rating climb from a dismal, Obama-esque 46 percent to 56 percent. Call it the human touch. Call it leadership in time of distress.

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Obama, by contrast, has proven adept at crisis avoidance. He did deliver a eulogy for the 29 miners who died in a West Virginia coal shaft in April. But his reflex response in a year of surreal manmade and natural disasters has been to assign blame and keep his distance. Ten months after Haiti's earthquake, with U.S. assistance in disarray and recovery stalled, Obama has yet to personally eyeball the devastation: "It's two hours from our shores," complained one aid agency executive to me recently.

With 230,000 dead, over 300,000 injured, and more than 1 million still homeless, Haiti's earthquake is a catastrophe made worse by Obama's neglect and mismanagement. Far from benign, the lack of attention to the disaster next door increasingly looks willful, and could lead to misallocation of funds. Consider:

• Nine months after Secretary of State Hillary Clinton pledged $1.5 billion in aid to rebuild, none of it has arrived in Port-au-Prince.

• The U.S. government has spent over $1.1 billion in post-quake relief, without any of it going to reconstruction or rubble removal.

• An authorization bill pending in Congress for reconstruction is being held by Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla. His reason: The Obama administration wants to spend $5 million staffing a Haiti aid coordinator's office in Washington that disaster experts say is redundant.

Even the Associated Press, in an October investigative report, concluded that the level of inaction stemmed from Obama-led "bureaucracy, disorganization and a lack of urgency."

Consider also the president's lack of attention to staffing. He took nearly a year in office to name a director of the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID)-meaning that his pick, Rajiv Shah, took office only days before Haiti's Jan. 12 quake. Shah is strong on global health and agriculture, and weak on managing disaster relief and development in areas of chronic unrest.

That would be OK if Obama had filled the director's position responsible for that-the Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance (OFDA), which comes under USAID, has a budget of over $1 billion, and usually sends the first U.S. teams to coordinate relief, as in the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami and 2008's Cyclone Nargis. To date-21 months after Obama took office-no one has been named to head OFDA. An assistant administrator, Don Steinberg of the International Crisis Group, was named and approved to start only this month.

While Republicans and Democrats have disagreed over how to implement them, both parties have always regarded relief and development as crucial tools to promote U.S. interests and security. The lack of focus on them is disastrous for a president committed to ending and avoiding armed conflict.
Email Mindy Belz


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