Almost four years to the day after the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks of 9/11 2001 caught the Bush administration by surprise, Hurricane Katrina slammed into the United States Gulf Coast, almost destroying New Orleans, again catching the Bush administration surprised and unprepared.
In 2001 the President, although warned only a few weeks before about the likelihood of an imminent terrorist strike using highjacked airplanes, was found sitting in an elementary school classroom when the predicted attacks occurred and then spent the rest of the day flying aimlessly around the country before returning to Washington. In 2005, although the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) had consistently over the previous five years been warning that a Class 5 hurricane (like Katrina) hitting the Gulf Coast and New Orleans was one of the three most likely threats to the country and while the US was enduring the most severe hurricane sesason in decades, when Katrina roared across Florida and into the Gulf of Mexico Mr. Bush remained on vacation at his Crawford, Texas, home. Even after Katrina had slammed ashore, he only left to address political fundraisers and veterans groups asking support for the war in Iraq.
The similarities in the two tragedies are eerily similar. In both a shocked country asked, "How could this happen? Why weren't we ready?"
The tragedies are dissimilar, though, in that in the first case a human perpetrator, Osama bin-Laden, could be identified, and questions about why he hadn't been stopped could be put aside while the country rallied behind the President who called for revenge and, as commander-in-chief, launched an invasion of Afghanistan where the evil perpetrator and his followers had their base. The questions of why we hadn't been prepared and who was responsible could be put off for months and years while the public was further distracted and rallied yet again while the administration finessed the response to 9/11 into a global "war on terrorism" that somehow rationalized an invasion of Iraq-Operation Enduring Freedom-and served yet again to move patriotic Americans to ask no questions as they closed ranks to support the troops and the commander-in-chief.
No matter that the specific reasons put before the people and their congressional representatives-Iraq's weapons of mass destruction, links to Osama's al-Quaeda, etc.-were all soon shown to be false, and the cakewalk into Baghdad where the US forces were to be greeted as liberators became a slog through the quicksand of an expanding insurgency claiming the lives of many hundreds of the troops for whom patriotic Americans showed support by the magnetic yellow ribbon tapes affixed to their cars. There was, as Mr. Bush correctly noted, a moment of accountability. It was the presidential election of 2004, and he won.
The perpetrator of Katrina, though, was no human hater of our democracy and freedoms, it was Mother Nature, herself. Kind of hard to take revenge against her. This showed in the massive popular reaction of outrage, not against a foreign enemy but against a United States government, the Bush administration to be precise, which had not only ignored the scientific warnings but had, in the face of them, drastically cut back on the funding of programs established to protect American citizens from the dangers its own experts had warned against. Not only that, but many of the resources it, and the several states, had (especially the National Guard and its equipment) had been diverted to the increasingly unpopular and controversial war that dragged on in Iraq. And, while the federal budgets for emergency programs and flood control had been slashed unmercifully during the first four years of the Bush presidency, the administration continued to pour at least $6 billion a month into the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts. There was further salt in the wound as most Americans became sadly aware that not only had their tax moneys been diverted to these wars and away from their now starkly demonstrated basic needs, but that the shortage of funds for those needs was also a consequence of the slashing of federal income taxes for the very wealthiest Americans. In the aftermath of Katrina, whose impact on the very poorest Americans was an immediate presence on the nation's television screens, this, too, became the subject of much angry comment from pundits, politicians, and public alike.
And then, of course, there was the extraordinary display of governmental incompetence in responding to Katrina. Local, state and federal officials all blundered badly, and there is plenty of blame to be shared among them. However, no matter how valiantly the White House tries to distance itself from responsibility or accountability, there is no denying the force of the revelation that President Bush's appointee as head of FEMA had no other qualification for the job than being the college roommate of his predecessor-a major Bush campaign contributor-and being in need of employment after having been fired as head of the United States Arabian horse association.
As the Congress begins its final session before the 2006 elections this week it would seem apparent that the Bush administration is facing real problems-the wars in the Middle East are going badly, the economic recovery, such as it is, is sputtering, with the incidence of poverty rising, and now Katrina.
Yet, we should ask if, ten months from now when new congressional elections will be held or even two years and ten months from now when there will be a presidential election, in which Bush, of course, will not be a candidate, if Katrina, coupled with growing public disillusionment over Iraq, foreshadows any real change in America's politics or its policies. After all, as a recent letter to the editor in the New York Times, commenting on a Times editorial that had criticized the diversion of resources to Iraq as a factor in the unfolding Katrina disaster, noted,"...the roots of the feeble response of government go deeper than the Iraq war. Indeed, in a real sense, it is precisely what the electorate has chosen."
The writers of the letter go on to note that for the past 25 years voters have consistently "expressed a preference for less taxes and less government that is financed from those taxes. Thus, (they conclude) our political leaders have...inexorably bled government of the resources needed to perform its functions." They do not comment, although they might have, on the equally sad fact that over those 25 years, that that portion of the American electorate which bothers to vote, while electing leaders who bleed government of the resources to provide for the general welfare also continues to support them as they devote ever increasing sums of money (and policy influence) to the armed forces and military adventures of dubious benefit to the general population.
There is an additional factor to consider when attempting to gauge the consequences of Katrina for either the Bush administration or the nation generally. For better or worse, the president has total control of the Department of Homeland Security (itself an offspring of 9/11). Long after the intial disgust and anger at the failure to anticipate Katrina and the inept response to it have stopped being the front page and prime time news focus, the White House will be managing the rebuilding effort. While the inevitable congressional or independent commissions-a la 9/11-review the record, with their tedious hearings given a paragraph or two on page 17, President Bush will preside over massive reconstruction programs. Every week will provide a photo op at some rebuilt school or new levee. Faith-based initiative funding will be found to restore some devastated black church in Mississippi even while federally guaranteed loans help the gambling casino operators of Alabama get back into business. And woe betide the member of Congress who raises questions or opposes.
Just as the post-9/11 Bush restructured himself as the national war leader the post-Katrina Bush will rise from the Gulf Coast rubble to be restructured as the national rebuilder. Would it be cynical even to imagine that the rebuilder-in-chief will redouble his efforts during the forthcoming electoral periods? We will see.
It is, though, safe to suggest that given the time and resources the Bush administration commands, the end result of Katrina may be to the advantage of its ideologues as they pursue their objectives. Indeed, it is even possible to speculate that if the post-Katrina domestic requirements are great enough (and the hurricane season is far from over) that they might provide a convenient rationale for an exit from Iraq, where, of course, the administration will proclaim, Mission Accomplished.
6. Sept 2005
David MacMichael, PhD, is a historian and a former analyst for U.S. government agencies and lives near Washington, D.C. He is currently a steering committee member of "Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity" (VIPS).
He regularly contributes to lifeinfo.de. We're happy to forward your e-mail to David.
©David MacMichael/lifeinfo.de 2005
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