As the toll from the tsunami continues to mount, it has become clear that this catastrophe was also a political turning point. No governments may have fallen, but some deeply held political myths and beliefs have not been able to withstand the force of the tidal wave that changed the world.
First and foremost, the myth of Islamic solidarity has been shattered. Despite most victims in Indonesia, the most populous Islamic country on the face of the earth, being Muslim, the support flowing from Arab governments has been pitifully small. The decades of petrodollars and the years of high gas prices have apparently not put the oil-rich Middle East in a position to afford to offer much help to Muslims in distress. But as Islamic victims receive support from the non-Islamic world, the already dubious claim that the general opinion of Muslims in the Middle East might be predisposed to rise up against the West becomes simply untenable.
In the face of a real disaster, neither the fundamentalists nor the Baathists nor the anticolonialists have done much at all. In contrast, the energy of the Western relief effort is likely to put a deep dent in the anti-Western and especially anti-American propaganda of the Islamicists.
Second, the generosity of the developed world has been considerable, especially from such regional neighbors as Japan and Australia but also from the United States and Europe. The tendentious suggestion that the United States was "stingy" failed to note that the "old European" powers initially proposed relatively low offers of aid as well. Only as the real extent of the disaster became clear did these amounts grow to many times their original size. Moreover, the outpouring of support has highlighted the importance of private giving and therefore the role of society beyond the state, just as it has shed light on the marginal standing of the United Nations.
The UN may still be able to find a raison d'etre in aid coordination. Although, after the debacle of the Oil-for-Food program, to expect a small dose of efficiency from a UN operation requires a bold leap of faith. The UN was simply unable to provide the leadership that came from the representatives of democratic nations—better unilateral action than multilateral inaction.
Finally, because disaster relief is not only about cash but also about a logistic capacity to deliver aid to the needy, a strategic military presence is crucial. Good intentions are a wonderful thing to have, but troops on the ground get things done. Although the Europeans have promised generous amounts of aid, they simply lack the naval capacity to transport it to the region in a timely manner, and it is unlikely that they will develop such a capacity in the future. The United States played a central role in the relief effort, thanks to its fleet. It is difficult to imagine that this operation will not counteract some residual anti-Americanism in the area. French president Jacques Chirac complained that the United States stole the limelight from a hypothetical multilateral effort he might have preferred, but in the meantime American aid has been able to save lives in Indonesia because U.S. forces were actually able to get there.