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Last Updated: 09/20/2005
Friends to the End (Here's Hoping)
Peter Krupa

Even as New Orleans was still reeling, an unusual thing was happening over at the State Department.

The whole world watched this month as the richest nation of them all fell on its face. One well-aimed hurricane was all it took, and suddenly the world’s only superpower was doubled over and wondering to itself what, exactly, went wrong.


As the levies broke and the cavalry didn’t come and New Orleans filled with violence and confusion as well as water, talk of other countries’ need to fix their problems suddenly rang hollow, and the only confusion greater than that of waterlogged New Orleans was that of the politicians in Baton Rouge and Washington.


Bush infamously thought FEMA head Michael Brown was doing a “heck of a job,” while Louisiana Governor Kathleen Blanco apparently didn’t know that screaming for “everything you’ve got” did not cover active duty Federal troops, which must be formally and specifically requested.


Internationally, eyebrows were raised, and perhaps smirks stifled. If not wounded, the Giant at least had hemorrhoids.


A long time ago some thoughtful Greeks came up with a term that partially describes this situation – hubris, which is the excessive pride that precedes a fall from greatness and also makes it that much worse. Perhaps no single anecdote illustrated this national hubris more than the New Orleans refugees bristling at being called “refugees,” claiming the term had racist and demeaning overtones.


After all, this was the United States, and the United States doesn’t have refugees.


But even as New Orleans was still reeling, as the bickering continued and the refugees were being ferried out by twos and threes rather than hundreds and thousands, an unusual thing was happening over at the State Department. The phone rings, and it’s Britain, offering 500,000 ration packs. It rings again, and France is on the line, offering tents and water filters. Again, and it’s the government of Mexico, offering trucks with field kitchens and bottled water. Then it’s Thailand. Then Finland. Then Japan. Then Kuwait. Then the UAE. Even little Sri Lanka called to offer $25,000 in funds (full list of donors).


All told, well over 100 different countries have offered a hand, as well as a dozen aid organizations. For the first time in history, the United Nations was to begin a relief mission on American soil.


At first, the Bush administration was just as maladroit at handling the international aid situation as it was the relief effort itself. “We’re doing, just fine, thank you,” was the United States government’s initial response. That is, until it looked around and saw the thousands and thousands of its soaked, hungry, thirsty, homeless, tired citizens. Wisely, the Bush administration finally humbled itself.


“We will accept any and all aid in the spirit that it is given,” said State Department Spokesman Sean McCormack. And so cargo planes from all over the world continue to land in airports across the American South, loaded with things that, amazingly enough, Americans don’t have.


Among the biggest contributors are America's Middle Eastern friends. Kuwait offered $500 million in petroleum products and other aid, and the United Arab Emirates $100 million. Many countries pledged supplies like camp beds, tents, and generators. The Netherlands, not surprisingly, offered to lend some water pumps and levy experts.


Of course one shouldn't get too gooey over the international aid offered. Some countries simply knew which side their bread was buttered on, others used the irony of offering aid to the U.S. to their political advantage, and yet others, like Iran, offered gifts with strings attached.


Also, the way that the U.S. Federal Government has handled the aid has been, by some accounts, a disaster in itself.


Given this international outpouring of sympathy, it's tempting to finger-wag at the United States to quit being selfish, turn from its evil ways, and put on the altruism hat. Fine and good, even considering that the U.S. is the biggest gross giver of aid in the world.


But as you've probably guessed by now, there's subtler picture, involving that word hubris. History tells us that all great nations end, eventually - and with Katrina, the United States has just had the very tiniest taste of what it feels like to fall, the slightest glimpse of its own vulnerability as a finite, human institution.


When the end does come (or at least another potentially crippling blow) it could very easily be an event like Katrina. The San Andreas Fault, for instance, is way overdue for a bit of exercise, exercise which could drop California right into the Pacific Ocean.


In situations like that, it's not a bad idea to have some good friends around to help you out, especially because it's not an if thing but a when thing. The U.S. probably could have weathered Katrina without international aid, but can it always afford to depend on itself? Maybe the current administration should think about this next time it goes back to its good ol' hubristic, unilateral saber rattling.


As New Orleans emerges from the mud and filth left by Katrina, let us be thankful that this time the international community was there to lend a welcome hand. Better make sure it is still there when the help is really needed.

Peter Krupa is the editor of the Peace & Conflict Monitor