To the world, chaotic aftermath of hurricane erodes view of U.S. strength

Nation appears weakened by Third World scenes

Katrina's Wake

September 04, 2005|By Todd Richissin | Todd Richissin,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

LONDON - The United States, somewhat suddenly, has a whole new image problem.

In the past few years, poll after poll has shown a growing resentment toward the United States around the world.

The bad feelings were chalked up largely to a common perception that what had been a pillar of democratic stability had become so powerful that it could do virtually whatever it wanted - and had become so arrogant that it would.

That image - of a country of impressive stability, admirable for its unmatched strength but contemptible for its overwillingness to use it - has been virtually unshakeable among many people in the world.

The events of the past week, though, may have gone a long way to altering that image. At minimum, it seems likely, the events will add a few more elements about the United States that many in the world will now consider.

Hurricane Katrina was going to be a strong one, the experts said days before it arrived on the shores of Louisiana and Mississippi. With a storm of that force, some serious property destruction was inevitable, serious flooding was a certainty and there would most probably be deaths.

The response would be difficult, of course. And expensive. The United States, though, could handle it.

But four days after the hurricane hit, the world was getting a drastically different picture of America:

The Times of London ran this headline Friday: "Survivors perish as troops try to quell anarchy."

The Financial Times, the most sober newspaper in Britain, was more blunt yesterday in its assessment in a front-page headline: "Fix this goddam crisis" - a quote from New Orleans Mayor C. Ray Nagin issued to President Bush.

The picture of America presented in living rooms across the planet over the past week was a collage of desperation and death, of lawlessness and indignity, all brought to being by scenes of young Americans with big rifles chasing tired police into retreat, by pictures of corpses left to lie among the living, by video footage of bloated old women floating dead in stagnant water and nobody assigned to retrieve them.

There was virtually no indication of the resources the United States possesses, no indication of its power. There were no trucks convoying into New Orleans to pump water and to fix electric lines and no trucks filled with bottles of drinking water.

Nobody saw any of those things.

Instead they saw this: Crying mothers holding naked babies and pleading into television cameras for something to drink; Americans suffering from exhaustion, serious dehydration and apparent delirium because the country that could do anything could not get them water until four days after the hurricane; the bodies of those who died waiting, lying among the living.

Much of the international coverage that focused on the government's response carried tones of bewilderment about the delays for something as basic as water. By the end of the week, news articles reached what seemed to be a unanimous conclusion - shared by President Bush - that the response was not up to standard.

In many cases, images of the Gulf Coast shown on TV seemed more likely to have come from a Third World country.

The U.S., the British Broadcasting Corp. told its viewers around the world, failed miserably to marshal its might to adequately care for its own, failed to prevent a whole region of the country from descending into a surreal "carnival of horrors."

The tentativeness of the country's social order was exposed by the scenes of armed gangs whose desire to commit violence could not be tempered even by the sight of the broken and dead bodies all around them. And the persistence of the country's race inequality was evident simply by watching the footage of the catastrophe because it could not go unnoticed that almost all of the Americans dropped into the middle of the misery were black.

In South Africa, Johannesburg's leading newspaper, The Star, published this headline yesterday: "Tragedy of a collapsing civilization."

Overstatement, perhaps, but to a lot of people watching the chaos unfolding on the shredded Gulf Coast, it sure seemed that way.

"It looked very much like what you'd see in Africa, not the U.S.," said Phindile Mkhabela, a 31-year-old entertainment manager shopping yesterday in Johannesburg. "People looked terrified and confused."

In China, the daily Nanjing newspaper presented its readers a portrait of the United States out of control, one of its grandest cities turned to "hell," thousands of its citizens left to find food in what was now an underwater graveyard, to find clean water where there was none. And do it while bullets were flying.

A New China News Service headline said in part: "Mobsters will be killed on spot."

An editorial yesterday in the left-wing daily Liberation referred to a country with "a cruel lack of leadership as the second major shock for America in the 21st century adds to the crisis of confidence in the most powerful nation on earth and to global disorder. Like for September 11, the country shows its vulnerability to the rest of the planet."

But the biggest perception shift from the hurricane might come for Americans' views of themselves. That is the essence of what the German newspaper General-Anzeiger wrote in an editorial yesterday.

About those images, the paper said: "They don't match the pictures Americans have of themselves, those who want to be proud of their country, of their solidarity, of their well functioning multicultural society where everybody can live his American dream."

Sun staff writers Scott Calvert in South Africa and Gady A. Epstein in China contributed to this article.

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