George W. Bush Monday recruited two former presidents, his father and Bill Clinton, to launch a joint appeal to the American people for emergency donations to victims of the Indian Ocean tsunami.
They stood side by side in the White House's Roosevelt Room as Bush told reporters: "We're here to ask our fellow citizens to join in a broad humanitarian relief effort. In the coming days, Presidents Clinton and Bush will ask Americans to donate directly to reliable charities already providing help to tsunami victims. In this situation, cash donations are most useful, and I've asked the former presidents to solicit contributions both large and small. I ask every American to contribute as they are able to do so."
According to the Wall Street Journal, Americans have so far given about $100 million to U.S.-based charities.
As the presidential appeal was launched, the U.S. flag on the White House was lowered to half-mast, marking the start of a week of mourning. The three presidents were also due to visit the Indonesian, Sri Lankan, Indian and Thai embassies in Washington to offer their condolences.
Clinton and the president's father are expected to give a string of media interviews to publicize the appeal.
The president's brother, Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, is already involved in the relief effort and is accompanying the Secretary of State Colin Powell on a tour of the disaster zone. Bush said they would brief him personally on their return.
So far, the U.S. administration has offered $350 million in humanitarian aid, but White House and congressional officials predict that figure will rise. Since being criticized last week for being slow to respond to the disaster, the White House has moved to play a leading role in the relief efforts. U.S. helicopters and planes have begun delivering emergency supplies to some of the most remote and badly hit areas, such as the west coast of Indonesia's Aceh province. One airlift at a time, they have begun to rebuild America's reputation, particularly in Indonesia, the world's most populous Muslim country, whose people overwhelmingly opposed the invasion of Iraq.
Col. Yani Basuki, a spokesman for the Indonesian government's emergency relief mission, said America's assistance is appreciated. "It has made a big difference," he told the Guardian. "We do not have enough helicopters and so the American aircraft are enabling us to reach many more people ... than would otherwise have been the case. They are certainly saving lives."
The Seahawk helicopters are based on the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln, which arrived off the coast of Aceh on Saturday. The ship's commander, Capt. Kendall Card, said the Seahawks flew 27 missions Monday, delivering 36 tons of aid.
The Pentagon has also sent the USNS Mercy, a 1,000-bed hospital ship, to the region to help treat victims and help prevent the outbreak of waterborne epidemics.
One senior Jakarta-based Asian diplomat said such missions would "make a huge difference" to Indonesians' view of the U.S. government. "Washington has lost most Indonesians' hearts and many of their minds," he said. "Provided they play this right, it stands to win back many friends it has lost over Iraq and Palestine."
Ken Conboy, a security analyst in Jakarta, agreed, although he said Washington would probably have reacted equally generously if Indonesia had not been a prominent Muslim country. "Having said that, the U.S. will be extra careful to make sure they get it right," he told the Guardian. "They have a great opportunity here to win back some of the support they have lost. Even if it's a byproduct of what they would want to do anyway, they won't want to pass up the opportunity." But he said it would be impossible to win over all the skeptics. "They could do back flips and they wouldn't be appreciated by some," he said.
European diplomats in Jakarta are also watching how Washington responds to the crisis. "It could be very good for the U.S.," one told the Guardian.