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How did Obama do on his first humanitarian crisis?

UN Dispatch‘s Mark Goldberg wrote for The New Republic yesterday that Sri Lanka — the first humanitarian crisis to unfold entirely under the new administration — has been handled more or less well. His point is an excellent one: the United States has pushed to delay an IMF loan to the country until certain conditions ...

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Displaced Tamil children are seen at a camp in Chettikulam, northern Sri Lanka on April 29, 2009. British foreign minister David Miliband and his French counterpart Bernard Kouchner who are in Sri Lanka for a one-day visit have failed to secure an agreement from Sri Lanka to end an offensive against Tamil rebels and allow humanitarian access to civilians trapped by the fighting. AFP PHOTO/PEDRO UGARTE (Photo credit should read PEDRO UGARTE/AFP/Getty Images)

UN Dispatch‘s Mark Goldberg wrote for The New Republic yesterday that Sri Lanka — the first humanitarian crisis to unfold entirely under the new administration — has been handled more or less well. His point is an excellent one: the United States has pushed to delay an IMF loan to the country until certain conditions are met. “With this move, the Obama administration has, literally, put its money where its mouth is,” Goldberg writes.

All true, and a good start. As Goldberg admits, it’s just that: a start. Still, several points are left dangling. 

First, the Sri Lanka crisis didn’t start during Obama’s administration; it’s been going on for literally decades. This most recent episode has been brewing since the government ended a 5-year truce with the Tamil Tiger rebels in early 2008. Since then, the government has pushed the war into a final phase, vowing to finish the job this February in an independence day address. But the short point is: the U.S., and everyone else, has had a long time to see the current crisis coming. It was no surprise — or should not have been. 

The United Nations missed that chance, despite the strong statements coming from governments, on occasion. As Gareth Evans, president of the International Crisis Group recently wrote for FP, the Security Council’s “relative silence is a matter for growing shame with each passing day.” Much of the hold up has come from lobbying to member states, by the government of Sri Lanka, he says. And that proves, “how much weight effective council action would have.” In other words: the government was nervous for what could have been.

Finally, while the lack of IMF loan will hurt, we should be under no illusions that Sri Lanka cannot get money elsewhere. The country has recently turned away from its traditional creditors and looked to other sources of cash and military expertise – think China and Pakistan.

So how did Obama do? Yes, not bad. But the conundrum of Sri Lanka will take much more fixing.

PEDRO UGARTE/AFP/Getty Images

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