WASHINGTON (AFP) – Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on Tuesday staunchly defended the American response to Haiti's earthquake, lashing out at foreign critics and calling the US military vital to the relief effort.
Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi quickly issued a statement praising American efforts, hoping to defuse a row after one of his ministers accused the US of weak leadership in the tragedy that claimed more than 150,000 lives.
"I deeply resent those who attack our country, the generosity of our people and the leadership of our president in trying to respond to historically disastrous conditions after the earthquake," Clinton told State Department employees at a forum marking one year in office.
Clinton did not single out critics but said that "some of the international press either misunderstood or deliberately misconstrued" the US decision to send thousands of troops to Haiti.
The United States needed to send both troops and civilians "to deliver aid to the Haitians who desperately needed it," Clinton said.
"We're scrambling as quick as we could to do everything we needed in the past two weeks," she said.
Italy's chief public safety official Guido Bertolaso said Sunday that the United States had sent "too many officers" to Haiti and could not find a capable leader.
Bertolaso, who won praise for his handling of last year's earthquake in the Italian town of L'Aquila, said that the United States could have been more effective if it had "a will and capacity for coordination and leadership."
But Berlusconi on Tuesday praised the US operation in Haiti, a day after his foreign minister, Franco Frattini, also distanced himself from the disaster minister's remarks in a meeting with Clinton in Washington.
"Without the generous and significant intervention of the United States everything would have been much more difficult," Berlusconi said.
"In critical situations like this it is unfortunately inevitable that difficulties will emerge" in the coordination of aid efforts, he said.
"Statements that might inadvertently spark debate should be avoided," he said.
Besides NATO ally Italy, the United States has faced criticism from leftist Latin American nations such as Venezuela, Bolivia and Cuba that accused the superpower of occupying the country rather than helping its people.
The United States sent troops to Haiti in 1915 at a time of instability in the poor nation, establishing a military government that lasted until 1934.
Clinton, in an interview with the African American-oriented American Urban Radio Networks, strongly refuted suggestions that Haitians did not want US troops on their soil.
"Boy, are people glad to see us," Clinton said. "I have lots of pictures of Haitians embracing our soldiers, waving at our helicopters, expressing their thanks."
"We know that some want to draw some historical parallel that is not applicable, but we are not paying any attention to that," she said.
At the State Department town hall, Clinton pointed to her strong response to criticism on Haiti as a model for the future.
While the Obama administration has pledged a humbler approach to foreign affairs after George W. Bush's divisive presidency, Clinton said the United States must be ready to defend itself against allegations it sees as unfair.
"I have absolutely no argument with anyone lodging a legitimate criticism against our country. I think we can learn from that and we are foolish if we keep our head in the sand and pretend we can't," Clinton said.
"What we're asking for is that people view us fairly," she said.