US President George W. Bush enlisted two former presidents for an ambitious private fund-raising drive for victims of the deadly tsunami, asking Americans to open their wallets to help the millions left homeless, hungry and injured.
"The devastation in the region defies comprehension," Bush said Monday as he announced the campaign to be led by his father, George H.W. Bush, and Bill Clinton. "I ask every American to contribute as they are able to do so."
In Thailand, Secretary of State Colin Powell told the nation's leaders, "We are in solidarity with you. The United States will certainly not turn away from those in desperate need."
Bush, his wife, Laura, and his two predecessors paid brief sympathy visits to the embassies of the four nations hit hardest -- Indonesia, Sri Lanka, India and Thailand. The first lady brought bouquets of white roses, and the president wrote messages in embassy condolence books, offering prayers as well as promises of US aid.
At the Indian Embassy, Bush said he planned a visit to the world's largest democracy sometime this year. "In the meantime, though, our country stands with the people who have suffered," he said.
The president ordered that all American flags fly at half-staff this week in sympathy for "the victims of a great tragedy," particularly the many thousands of dead and orphaned children.
Meanwhile, the president was getting daily reports from a delegation he dispatched to the region to assess whether the US government can do more. Speaking en route to Bangkok, Thailand, Powell, leading the team with the president's brother, Florida Governor Jeb Bush, did not rule out more US government money. But he said there was no immediate need to increase the US$350 million commitment because the most urgent task was coordinating all the aid that was pouring in -- the vast majority still unspent.
"There is no shortage of money at the moment," Powell said.
Governor Bush, no stranger to massive relief efforts following hurricanes in Florida, said dealing with needs beyond the immediate emergency would be difficult.
"Irrespective of how much tragedy is taking place, there will be a way to get food and water and medicine to people," he said.
"The long-term recovery issues are the ones that are a greater challenge, and the ones where I think the expertise of our country can be brought to bear to really help people."
The president asserted that the US had jumped into action quickly and had taken a leading role, despite criticism that America's response was neither swift nor leading, especially at first. Bush promised a long-term investment in the recovery by the US. Other countries were quicker to commit large amounts of aid money, and Japan has outpaced the US pledge.
"We need to look at the issue before we throw a lot of aid in there," House Speaker Dennis Hastert said in a brief interview. "I'm not opposed to putting more money into aid, but I think we need to find what the problems are."
Even before the White House campaign, private donations had been running at virtually unprecedented levels since immediately after the earthquake that led to the tsunami.
Under the new fundraising drive, to be coordinated by the White House's USA Freedom Corps, an office that encourages volunteering, Clinton and the first President Bush will solicit donations by doing media interviews and traveling the country. They also will tap into their own networks of contacts to try to pry donations from corporations, foundations and the wealthy, said White House spokesman Scott McClellan.