Richard W. Baker: The Tsunami and U.S.-Muslim Relations

Date: 01-10-2005

By Richard W. Baker, special assistant to the president and an Indonesia specialist at the East-West Center. Before coming to the East-West Center, Baker served as a U.S. Foreign Service officer for 20 years.

HONOLULU (Jan. 10) -- As has been noted in a number of news reports and commentaries, the devastating Dec. 26 tsunami off Sumatra provides an opportunity for the United States to improve its badly battered reputation in the Islamic world, especially in Southeast Asia. Perhaps the most striking image in this regard was the initial arrivals of helicopter-borne U.S. troops on Indonesian soil, where they were welcomed literally as lifesavers by the fervently Islamic Acehnese. This picture alone shows the power of a genuine disaster and a sincere response to put differences aside.

Thus it is quite correct to see the possibility that the American response to the disaster -- from civil society as well as the government -- could lead to an improvement or at least a mitigation of attitudes toward the United States on the part of the Muslim community in Indonesia (and elsewhere). But this is also a subject that needs to be carefully and sensitively handled. The tsunami response is not and should not be seen -- in the United States or the region -- as some sort of "PR" exercise.

The fact is that the virtually spontaneous reaction to the tragedy reflects aspects of American life and society -- humanitarianism and generosity of spirit -- that are well established and have been long recognized, but which have tended to be obscured recently by the high-decibel international (and American) controversy and debate over the Bush administration's invasion of Iraq. There can be no doubt that the Iraq issue, which has heightened attention to and concern over American policy in the Middle East generally and U.S.-Israel relations specifically, has greatly eroded confidence in the United States throughout the Muslim world. What the tsunami response can do is to throw light on these broader and more fundamental American attributes of charity and concern for the suffering of others. This can be a step toward re-balancing international understanding and attitudes about the United States and its global role.

But the keys here are sincerity and follow-through. A sustained American response to the tsunami, with initial steps followed up by long-term commitments, would provide the most eloquent demonstration of the good will of American society -- and the Bush administration. (A successful election and greater stability in Iraq would certainly help cement this message, but that is basically a separate issue.) Any organized effort to extract short-term mileage from the operation would only sully the spirit and detract from the true intention and sentiment involved. The effort should speak for itself -- self-congratulation and exploitation would as easily backfire as reinforce the positive and lasting impact.

Richard W. Baker can be reached at (808) 944-7371 or

This is an East-West Wire, copyright East-West Center