Richard North, 15/01/2005  

Underlining just how low grade the claim made by Newsnight about the role of the US viz-à-viz the UN, which we recorded in our Blog this morning, comes an article in The Weekend Australian, brought to our attention by our reader.

Entitled, "How Blair was left on sidelines" and written by Greg Sheridan, a visiting fellow at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, it tells the story of the early hours and days of the response to the tsunami disaster.

The initial thrust of the story is how, in the very early days, Tony Blair was left out of the loop, when four countries immediately mobilised their resources. These were the so-called "core group", which consisted of the US, Australia, Japan and India, leaving Blair on the outside and, we are told, "unhappy".

But the more interesting part is the hitherto untold inside story of the short life of that core group which, writes Sheridan, reveals one of the most elegant exercises in foreign policy in recent times. Its formation, he says, tells us much about the Bush administration, its ability to react quickly when necessary, its geostrategic priorities and its intimate relationship with Australia.

The crucial point here is that the US response to the tsunamis was far from slow, as some critics have alleged. When the earthquake struck off the coast of Sumatra, triggering a series of powerful tsunamis on the morning of Sunday, 26 December, it was mid-evening on Christmas night in Washington. Continues Sheridan:

Yet within six hours, the US Agency for International Development was moving relief funds to US embassies in the region. According to senior US officials, it was natural and automatic that Australia was the first and most important interlocutor on this crisis.

The US Pacific Command, based in Hawaii, was in touch with its Australian counterparts straight away. Pacific commander Admiral Thomas Fargo was quickly on the phone to Australia's General Peter Cosgrove.

In Washington, senior staff of the State Department, Pentagon and National Security Council, who had not taken Christmas leave, were called back to their offices.
There followed a series of telephone conferences to discuss the immediate response as the proposal for the core group, credited to Under-Secretary of State for political affairs Marc Grossman, took shape. Grossman would in due course become the US convenor of the group.

As these staff discussions were going on, we are told, US officials periodically kept key Australian diplomats informed with an "ease and familiarity" that enabled the "core-group" concept quickly to be formalised in a phone call between national security adviser Condoleeza Rice and secretary of state Colin Powell.

It was Tony Blair, coming onto the scene, who then spoke to Bush and told him that that co-ordination should go through the UN and the G8. But, as the US and other core-group members had already found, the UN had no capacity to do anything or to make any difference in the short term.

It was not until 31 December that the UN had got itself sufficiently together for there to be a video-conference, involving Powell and the UN's Kofi Annan and various senior UN officials. After that, core group meetings routinely included UN representatives.

A senior US official says that, "This was an opportunity for the US and the UN to kiss and make up," but another core- group official had a more blunt view: "All this talk about UN capability is crap. The core-group countries had forces steaming to the crisis while the UN was still on holidays."

So, the "core group" concept was a classic example of focused, regional multilateralism, not initially involving the UN, centred on a real task. The US made tsunami relief an exceptionally high priority, even to the extent of deploying units that were meant to be heading for Iraq, according to some sources. In total, the US, Australian and Japanese military forces committed the greatest concentration of military power in Southeast Asia since the Vietnam War.

Australia's contribution has received exceptional coverage in the US. Both The New York Times and the Washington Post ran front page photos of Australian soldiers helping tsunami victims while an unofficial internet site run by US diplomats sang the praises of the Australians. Countless newspapers and television news programs ran graphics showing Australia as the outstanding contributor of tsunami aid.

The tsunami relief effort reached a political climax with the summit in Jakarta on 6 January. For that meeting, the Australian Government urged the Bush administration to consider having the President attend himself.

But, while it would have been an enormous gesture for Bush to go personally to Jakarta, it would have been a massive logistical exercise, diverting Indonesian security and military resources from the relief effort. So, instead, Bush sent Powell, the most internationally popular member of his cabinet, and his brother, Florida Governor Jeb Bush. This personalised Bush's response in a way that was well understood in Asia.

By then, with its work done, the core group was wound up and the UN was allowed to take over the nominal role of co-ordinating a relief effort that was already well-under way. And all BBC’s Newsnight could offer was:

The Asian tsunami has provided a perfect example of the need for an effective UN under an activist Secretary General. This time Kofi Annan was quick off the mark and America's independent efforts soon looked superfluous.
"Unprofessional" does not even begin to describe it. These Beebies are sick.

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