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Test for US, Obama in Haiti earthquake response

The US response to the Haiti earthquake will be important for America's – and President Obama's – image in the region.

By Staff writer / January 13, 2010

A search and rescue team from the Los Angeles Fire Department arrives at the airport in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, on Thursday.

Lynne Sladky/AP

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The United States is traditionally a leader in international disaster response, but it faces a special test in the aftermath of Haiti’s devastating earthquake Wednesday. That’s partly because of Haiti’s proximity and the long history between the two countries, but also because of new challenges to the preeminent position held by the US in the Western Hemisphere.

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It's of little relative importance, given the magnitude of the human suffering in and around the Haitian capital of Port-au-Prince, but China’s search-and-rescue team was the first to reach there Thursday, preceding US teams by a couple of hours.

US bilateral response is important to America’s image, both as a sign of commitment to the hemisphere and as a signal to the large Haitian community in the US, relief experts say.

US military personnel are already there, and a 72-member search-and-rescue team is expected to be on the ground by Thursday afternoon. It is also considering sending a contingent of Marines to Port-au-Prince because of the damages suffered by the United Nation’s 9,000-strong stabilization force, known as MINUSTAH. Many of them were trapped in a building hit by the quake.

But while the US may play a leadership role, the relief and eventual reconstruction efforts will be international, given the extent of devastation in the hemisphere’s poorest country, experts add.

“The US has been traditionally the largest bilateral donor to Haiti, and there are multiple reasons for that, ranging from a history that goes back to the earliest days of the two countries to the large Haitian diaspora in the US,” says Peter DeShazo, director of the Americas program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. “The good news is that the international community is much more engaged in Haiti than in the past, and that’s important because the needs are such that it’s too much for any one country.”

More teams may deploy

In describing the initial US and international responses to the disaster, senior US officials indicated their understanding that relief and reconstruction efforts will act as something of a test of US and multinational effectiveness and capacity.