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

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    A search and rescue team from the Los Angeles Fire Department arrives at the airport in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, on Thursday.
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    People walk in Delmas street, after an earthquake hit Haiti Tuesday evening, in Port-au-Prince Wednesday.
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    President Barack Obama makes remarks about the devastation caused by an earthquake in Haiti as Vice President Joe Biden listens at the White House in Washington Wednesday.
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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.

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.

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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.

“The international nature of this is a real opportunity as well as a challenge,” said Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton at a news briefing in Honolulu, the first stop in a trip focused on the south Pacific region including Australia. Secretary Clinton said she was coordinating the State Department and USAID response from Pacific Command and that she had decided, in consultation with President Obama, that she would not cancel her trip.

The US priority over the next 72 hours will be “saving lives,” said Rajiv Shah, the new administrator for the US Agency for International Development (USAID), at a State Department briefing Thursday. Two urban search-and-rescue units have been dispatched to help dig out the thousands of Haitians thought to be trapped in collapsed structures. The government is acting to identify other teams that would be prepared to deploy, Mr. Shah said.

Beyond that, the US is already “thinking about critical needs in the area of health and food, water, transportation, and infrastructure…,” he said, adding, “We are committed to a significant effort, and we are committed to doing everything we can in all of those sectors.”

The US is also “very seriously” looking at sending a Marine expeditionary unit to Haiti to assist MINUSTAH as well as the US Embassy and USAID, said Gen. Douglas Fraser, head of US Southern Command, who was also at the briefing.

The Katrina comparison

The US response to Haiti’s disaster is also important for President Obama because, as a presidential candidate, he was sharply critical of the Bush administration’s response in the aftermath of hurricane Katrina, regional analysts say.

Haiti may not be a domestic disaster but it will nonetheless be a test of Obama’s abilities, says Mr. DeShazo, a former deputy assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs. “It certainly would send a positive image of the administration and the US if the US response is a robust and effective one,” he says

As for China’s swift dispatch of a rescue, “it’s in keeping with their objective of establishing a larger presence and deeper ties to the region,” DeShazo says. “Arriving on the scene early is a symbolic way of underscoring their presence.”

See also:

A Christian Science view: Prayers for Haiti’s people

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