Helping Hands

This is a partial transcript of "The Big Story With John Gibson," Dec. 28, 2004, that has been edited for clarity.

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JOHN GIBSON, HOST: The White house is pledging $15 million in aid so far to countries hit by the tsunami (search). A United Nations official called that "stingy," although now he says that statement was being taken out of context. The State Department is working to free up another $20 million or so.

So is our government doing enough to help? I'm joined by Ed Luck. He's former president of the United Nations Association of the United States and here's today's big question. Does the U.N. have a right to call the U.S. stingy in this thing?

ED LUCK, FMR PRES., U.N. ASSN. OF THE U.S.: Well, it certainly isn't helpful. I think he's recanted since that. I mean everyone has to do what they can. Generally we're very good at responding to emergencies. If it's on the media, there's a lot of starving children and a lot of drowned people, we respond to that. The problem is, are we there for the long-term economic development? That's where we really have a bigger problem.

GIBSON: Well, the U.S. spends more, I guess, in relief operations than the rest of the world combined. But this one U.N. official appeared to feel — his name is Jan Egelund (search). He's a Norwegian and appeared to feel that the United States was under taxed and that if the United States taxpayers paid more, there would be more to contribute to these kinds of situations. Is that what they think at the U.N.?

LUCK: Well, certainly in terms of long-term economic development, as a per capita contribution, in terms of our percentage of GDP, we're pretty much at the bottom in terms of contributions. But, of course, much of American aid goes to private organizations and not through the government to begin with. And I think there is a sense of a lot of people at the U.N. that sort of blame the U.S. first, and I think that's unfortunate. In this particular case, he didn't single out the U.S. He talked about wealthy countries in general. And there, of course, it's blame the rich when this sort of thing happens.

GIBSON: What he seemed to be referring to is that somebody was under taxed. We know that Western Europe isn't under taxed. So from that, we would conclude that he meant the United States. Now, you know, the U.S. is sending what it can right now, and $15 million doesn't sound like much, but the U.S. is going to end up spending a lot more than that, isn't it?

LUCK: Yeah, I think the U.S. will. And it's really unfortunate to have this kind of controversy at the very beginning. You know, if after the fact we see we didn't do enough, that's one thing. But I think we're just beginning to see the U.S. and others going to contribute, so it's a little hard to make a judgment at this point.

GIBSON: Well, what is it that's needed at this point? It's one thing to say, will be there for long-term economic development, which I guess means will we go back in there and rebuild these hotels, so another 1,500 Swedes can be there, but what about this immediate need right now? I mean, they got this huge problem of trying to locate all the bodies, bring them someplace, identify them. All those western tourists that were killed, it's a small number compared to the total, but their countries certainly will not put up with mass graves. They want those people identified and returned to be interred wherever they are. What can the U.S. do for this kind of immediate need?

LUCK: Well, right now, we have to get in potable water. The water is going to be badly polluted. There's going to be disease. We've got to get in there to prevent disease, prevent this from getting much worse. The problem aren't just the victims immediately from the tsunami. The problem is over time, so many people have problems because of various diseases that spread very rapidly in this kind of situation. And then, quite frankly, we've got to work with those countries on prevention so this doesn't happen again, so there's an early warning system. That's something that isn't that expensive, that is doable, and ought to be in place, so the next time, if there is another tsunami, it may be 10 years, 20 years, but they'll be better prepared and won't have so many people caught unawares.

GIBSON: This one was really remarkable. I mean, 9 points, breaking across 620 miles of ocean bottom. Are these countries going to spend their own money for a warning system that might not be put into play for a century?

LUCK: Well, I think it will probably be some kind of international system, some kind of a cooperative venture, maybe with the U.N., maybe with some regional groups. For example, the countries of southeast Asia do have the money, do have the wherewithal. They could do quite a bit. India certainly could. It's partly a question of priorities. There's been so much fighting in that area, so many political problems, that now they have to focus on this kind of effort, as well.

GIBSON: Tell me what happened over at the U.N. Mr. Egelund from Norway, he says he was misinterpreted, but we saw the sound bite. There he is. He was talking about not enough money coming from the rich countries and he said probably an ill-chosen word, he said the rich countries were kind of stingy, really. He said, I don't know why we're so stingy, meaning us rich countries. Immediately he took it back. Immediately the United States bristled until he took it back. What happened over at the U.N.?

LUCK: Well, I'm not too surprised by this. I mean, one, there's a lot of resentment in the U.S. about the U.N. and in the U.N. about the U.S. these days. Second of all, he's from a humanitarian affairs background. He immediately worries about people on the ground there and why can't we do more? He's from Norway, a country that traditionally gives a great deal for humanitarian assistance and for long-term development aid. So I'm not surprised that he would take this kind of position. He's also someone who tends to be outspoken. He's not someone who's been in headquarters very long. He's someone who's been out in the field a lot, someone who really empathizes with the people who were devastated.

GIBSON: What does he expect? Does he expect the United States to mobilize 15,000 troops and go there and start picking through the debris?

LUCK: Well, he'd like us to do whatever we can. I mean, one thing we have to recognize is that whether we give a lot in terms of direct assistance, we can do a lot in terms of logistics, in terms of transportation, in terms of helping get the material there. A lot that's going to be generated are going from private groups, the non-governmental organizations. But they're going to have to have a way of getting those supplies there. Our air force, our military transport is far superior to anyone else's, and then we can help a lot with that sort of thing, and I'm sure we will. I don't think there's any doubt about it. I think the U.S. is going to be there.

GIBSON: But once again, the U.N. was revealed as having an attitude about the United States that simply doesn't do enough.

LUCK: Yeah, there is an attitude about the U.S. at the U.N. And there's an attitude in the U.S. about the U.N. Neither side of this relationship is working very well these days, but both need the other.

GIBSON: Ed Luck, former president of the U.N. Association of the U.S. Ed, thanks a lot. Appreciate it.

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