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What Are We Protecting: Competition or Compassion?

January 15, 2010

On Wednesday, January 13, fourteen Senators wrote their chamber’s leaders calling for urgent action by the Congress to aid earthquake ravaged Haiti.  Their letter stated that assistance to the people of Haiti was in the United States’ national security interest.

In the days following the earthquake, President Obama has repeatedly pledged urgent and ample assistance. Military assets, international aid supplies, and government rescue teams were deployed within hours, and have already had an impact in terms of establishing aviation and sea-based supply lines through Port-au-Prince’s ravaged airport and seaport.

Meanwhile, individual Americans have responded with unprecedented speed and generosity to calls for donations to the American Red CrossCatholic Relief ServicesDoctors Without BordersMercyCorpsOxfamSave the Children,UNICEFUnited WayWorld Vision, and a host of other relief agencies online and by SMS text message. Corporations have pledged in-kind support, and at least one major credit card company has waived processing fees on donation transactions (albeit after a media outcry).

Despite the overwhelming show of support for Haiti and its impoverished people, one might reasonably ask what the United State’s national security interest there is. The country has few strategic resources, poses no military threat, and its fervent religious culture does not seem to breed the sort of extremism that has fostered terrorism eslewhere. So what’s on the line here?

The answer seems to be simple: America cannot afford to ignore the plight of people so like those who suffered from the poor response to Hurricane Katrina in 2005.  As the nation seeks to rebuild its image abroad, it is becoming clear that the moral authority of the United States and its people rests not upon our ability to project power but on our willingness to extend protection. Put another way: This is a question of compassion, not competition.

The earthquake only compounded the problems Haiti already faced. It exposed not only the inadequacies of existing arrangements to promote sustainable prosperity, but also the consequences of neglecting the important connections between social and economic development in our own hemisphere and political stability.

Distinctions between homeland security and national security, hard power and soft power blur and fade to insignificance in the face of such a catastrophe. At a time when we have become better known and even resented for our preoccupation with competition and our relentless consumption, this is a time for America and Americans to display the sort of uncommon and uncompromising compassion our unparalleled liberties afford us.

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