TCS Daily

The Coalition of the Can Do

By Jay Currie - January 5, 2005 12:00 AM

The pleasures of UN bashing pale in comparison to the facts on the soggy ground left by the tsunami. What matters, and has mattered from the day the waves hit, is the capacity to make decisions and implement them.

UN and EU apologists attribute their lame efforts relative to the Americans, Australians, New Zealanders and nations in the region, to a lack of resources, distance, lack of cash and absence of ongoing involvement in the region.

Which may all be true. But the valuable Diplomad provides the following

"short situation report circulated by the Dutch at the most recent EU meeting here in this corner of the Far Abroad. This January 2 report is written by local Dutch diplomats who traveled to Aceh and saw the reality on the ground....

"The US military has arrived and is clearly establishing its presence everywhere in Banda Aceh. They completely have taken over the military hospital, which was a mess until yesterday but is now completely up and running. They brought big stocks of medicines, materials for the operation room, teams of doctors, water and food. Most of the patients who were lying in the hospital untreated for a week have undergone medical treatment by the US teams by this afternoon. US military have unloaded lots of heavy vehicles and organize the logistics with Indonesian military near the airport. A big camp is being set up at a major square in the town. Huge generators are ready to provide electricity. US helicopters fly to places which haven't been reached for the whole week and drop food. The impression it makes on the people is also highly positive; finally something happens in the city of Banda Aceh and finally it seems some people are in control and are doing something. No talking but action. European countries are until now invisible on the ground. IOM staff (note: this is a USAID-funded organization) is very busy briefing the incoming Americans and Australians about the situation."

This is not a nuanced response. It is not particularly respectful of the cultural sovereignty of Indonesia. Or the social conventions of that huge Muslim nation. Indeed, the entire American/Australian response reeks of ad hoc, seat of the pants, cowboyism. Go in, do the job, move on.

Donald Rumsfeld famously talked about "the Old Europe". At the time he was taken to mean the ponderous unwillingness to commit to the Iraqi project exhibited by the French and the Germans in particular. However, in retrospect, he was making a cultural observation of much broader implication.

Confronted with a stalled car different people do different things. Some people who know something about cars and have the tools at hand will try a jump start, they may take the air filter off and mess about with the carburetor. If, like me, they know next to nothing about cars, they will at least help push the car to a safe spot or a service station. They do what they can.

In the same situation other people are paralyzed. What if they do something and make the situation worse? What makes another person's stalled car their responsibility? Shouldn't they read the manual before actually attempting to restart the car? Perhaps the car wants to be stalled?

The arguments for inaction, for further study, for action short of actually starting the car, can occupy many enjoyable hours of wit and repartee. Experts can be consulted, adjournment to the nearest bar for a full and careful examination of the social, cultural and political implications of the stalled car is not out of the question.

Between the "can do", "let's try it" world and the carefully measured, sophisticated, "precautionary principle" world there is a canyon sized chasm. One world is brash, the other timid. One world learns from its mistakes knowing it will make more, the other vows never to make a mistake again.

Ultimately, the chasm is about a cast of mind. There is nothing cosmopolitan about getting a car started or disaster relief: you roll up you sleeves, get dirty and get the best job done you can with the tools at hand. It can be dirty work. The reward is doing the thing as well as it can be done.

Just as in Iraq, there will be tens of thousands, if not millions, of people who will owe their lives to the Coalition of the Can Do. A coalition not so much of nations as of people willing to work rather than chat and governments willing to let them.

Jay Currie is a Galiano writer whose writing and blog is at


TCS Daily Archives