George Bush understood that this global disaster also offered a global opportunity

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The Independent Online

Politicians as a breed tend to enjoy more than their fair share of good fortune, and George W Bush is surely more fortunate than most. Pitted against a lacklustre opponent, he was re-elected convincingly despite leading his country into a misguided war. But much of a politician's good fortune is of his own making and George Bush is no slouch in this department either. Quicker than many national leaders to grasp the scale of the Asian disaster - though slower than many of his fellow-countrymen would have liked - he also grasped that the tsunami presented the United States with an unheralded opportunity.

The results are before us. The Bush White House is in the midst of a formidable exercise in re-branding. Images of the US Air Force bombing Fallujah and other rebellious Iraqi cities have been replaced on our screens with scenes of a US flotilla sailing peaceably across the Indian Ocean, packed with amphibious vehicles and live-saving aid. Those notorious photographs of US soldiers abusing Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib are being superseded by clips of tough-but-tender American pilots concerned about landing their planes or helicopters for long enough to deliver the precious cargo of food and medicine. The "good GI" so familiar from all those Second World War films is making a 21st century comeback.

With the arrival in the region today of the outgoing Secretary of State, Colin Powell, at the head of a US delegation, the White House is sending another powerful message. This is a mission tailor-made for Mr Powell, who was always more comfortable wielding "soft" power than "hard"; it gives him a co-ordinating job that he could well keep after he ceases to head the State Department. Among the members of the group is also the President's brother, Jeb, the governor of Florida. Officially, he is there to contribute his experience of handling the aftermath of hurricanes in his home state. Loudly and clearly, however, his presence will demonstrate to the region that the President cares enough to send his own brother.

What a contrast, in practical and public relations terms, with the European Union's response, and that of the British government in particular. Although the exercise of "soft" power is supposed to be where Europeans excel, we have operated throughout this disaster for all practical purposes as separate countries. Relief operations, as opposed to the repatriation of nationals, seemed slow to start. In Britain, public sentiment has consistently raced far ahead of the official response. Ministers have scrambled to catch up, mostly - in the absence of the Prime Minister - without success. Mr Blair's first statement in person, an interview from his Egyptian holiday on Saturday evening, seemed strangely detached. "At first," he said, "it seemed a terrible disaster, a terrible tragedy. But I think as the days have gone on, people have recognised it as a global catastrophe." People? What people? His fellow Britons had understood within a day that this catastrophe was "global" and were flocking to make contributions.

In practical terms, Mr Blair may have been justified in stressing long-term considerations over immediate needs. But again, he was adrift. Had he not seen the footage, heard the harrowing accounts of the survivors? John Prescott and others were yesterday peppering their every utterance with references to the Prime Minister's almost hourly involvement in meetings and decisions. Our experience though, and not for the first time, is of a prime minister abroad and out of touch with the mood of his country. We recall his first, desperately inadequate, response to news of the death of the weapons expert, Dr David Kelly. Where is the popular touch of the man who so eloquently voiced this country's response to the death of the Princess of Wales?

All politics may be local, but where a disaster of this magnitude is concerned, politics are also global. George Bush understood that the US had a chance not only to help, but to be seen to be doing so in the eyes of the world. Mr Blair, for whatever reason, did not.