After a much-criticized initial response to the tsunami disaster in southeast Asia, the US is now assuming a more prominent role in the humanitarian relief effort - applying its monetary and military resources in ways that not only are bringing critical aid to victims but could also, proponents hope, bolster America's reputation around the world.
The ramp-up is evident on multiple fronts. US marines in Black Hawk helicopters and cargo planes are now bringing food and medical supplies to hard-to-reach areas in the region, while Secretary of State Colin Powell and Florida Gov. Jeb Bush arrived in Thailand Monday to assess the damage.
On Monday, President Bush also launched a new private fundraising effort for the tsunami victims, led jointly by former presidents Bill Clinton and George H.W. Bush. It will buttress the $350 million in
aid the US government pledged last week, after its initial outlays of $15 million and then $35 million were criticized as "stingy." Secretary Powell has indicated that number could rise as well.
The ultimate impact of all this, of course, is still unclear. Experts say it will take years to rebuild some of the most devastated areas, and caution that, after the initial flurry of attention fades, relief efforts can stall.
But in the short term, many say, the US is taking steps that could not only help make a critical difference for the victims, but could help counter some of the anti-American sentiment that has grown in recent years, particularly in the Muslim world, in response to the Bush administration's policies.
Indeed, at a time when much of the world derives its opinion of the US based on either images of materialism in movies or images of warfare in Iraq, the impact of pictures of American troops and aid workers delivering supplies could go a long way.
"This is a terrible human tragedy. But it's also a foreign-policy opportunity," says Joseph Cirincione, senior associate and director of the Non-Proliferation Project at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. "When you're generous, people are generous back to you.... This is really a unique opportunity for the US to apply its formidable resources and talents to help one of the largest Muslim countries in the world."
Certainly, most analysts agree, it's unlikely that the US will be able to erase, or even really diminish, opposition to the occupation in Iraq, regardless of how generous a relief effort it mounts in southeast Asia in days and weeks to come. Moreover, to some, the initial slowness of the US response may only have reinforced an image of America as largely putting its own interests first - and could make the current actions look more like a public-relations calculation than a sincere desire to help.
"Even if we had handled this correctly from the beginning, it would have been very difficult to reverse the widespread animosity toward the US in the world," says John Mearsheimer, a political scientist at the University of Chicago. "We've worked very hard over the past four years to create that animosity, and it can't be undone quickly on one policy and one issue."
While the ramped-up aid efforts are commendable, Professor Mearsheimer says, if the US wants to substantially improve its image in the world, it needs to rethink those policies that have been most controversial or damaging to its reputation - specifically, in the Middle East and Iraq. "If the US really hopes to improve its standing around the world, it has to figure out a way to get out of Iraq and change its policies on the Arab-Israeli conflict," he says.
Others point out that even the more expanded pledge of $350 million in aid represents a fraction of what the US is spending in Iraq. And the total amount pledged by all nations - which now stands at roughly $2 billion - will likely still fall short of what is ultimately needed, which some say could total as much as $5 billion.
"One doesn't want to criticize compassion: I think Powell was genuinely hurt that [UN relief coordinator Jan Egeland] called the US stingy," says Peter Walker, director of the Feinstein International Famine Center at Tufts University in Medford, Mass. "But there's an obligation that goes with wealth."
Still, at a press conference Monday, Mr. Egeland went out of his way to praise the "outstanding cooperation" the UN has had with many countries working on the relief effort. He cited in particular the US role in chairing aid-coordination meetings, saying, "Whatever was asked for was delivered the next day."
It's unclear whether Mr. Bush himself will travel to the region, but by sending his brother, analysts say, and speaking out again about the tragedy in public, he may leave more of an impression of personal commitment. Likewise, the heartfelt response of US citizens, who have been donating large sums to private charities, could resonate around the world. US flags are flying at half-mast this week in honor of the victims.
If that kind of response continues, some analysts say, and the US is able to foster lasting images of generosity by helping to save lives and rebuild facilities in a key region of the world - with a sizable Muslim population - the implications could be enormous.
"It's like the MasterCard commercial," says Mr. Cirincione. "Cost of [the aid effort] - there's a dollar figure to it. The goodwill that it buys - priceless."