Friday, September 02, 2005


I was a single-issue voter in the last election. I voted for President Bush because I felt he was right about Iraq, and more fundamentally, about our security. I overlooked just about everything else that I disliked about his presidency on that single issue.

Since 9/11, President Bush has made a compelling case that we need to rebuild our security mechanisms, at home and abroad. The Department of Homeland Security was formed here at home, and we were put on a war footing abroad. I believe that this is sensible given the levels of terror threats that we face. Unfortunately, I had to turn away from my own party to vote for someone who I believed took my nation's security more seriously.

I think there were a lot of Ciceros at the 2004 polls -- security-minded Democrats who voted for President Bush. As that kind of voter, I am having trouble with what I see going on in New Orleans.

After all the emphasis the Bush Administration has placed on this nation's security, exporting freedom abroad to Iraq, and the dire warnings about WMDs on our soil, my expectation in the era of terror -- the era of holding back chaos -- is that the Bush Administration can thwart chaos effectively. On the Federal level. That's what the game plan has been for the last five years: The Federal Government has stepped in with huge spending increases to prepare the United States for the chaos of terrorism. It has been a nationalized priority, costing billions.

New Orleans is devolving into anarchy, death, pillage and disease, nearly five days after Hurricane Katrina came ashore. Things appear to be improving only incrementally. Clearly, this is a crisis of unprecedented magnitude, with immense logistical challenges. It is reasonable to ask, however, if for the last five years the 'anti-chaos' mechanisms that have been put into place are as effective as advertised.

The Bush administration's credibility is on the line. There is a direct correlation between managing the chaos of natural disasters, and the chaos of terror events. So far, the Federal Government's management of Katrina's aftermath is confused, unfocused, and uninspired. Seeing President Bush call the Federal response "unacceptible" does not absolve him of responsibility. He runs the country. His job is to run the Federal government. The buck stops at his desk.

There are debates going on about responsibility for this disaster -- whether or not it lies with the Federal Government, state or local government. There's an argument that New Orleans made its own fateful choices when moneys went into expensive projects like the Superdome, that might have been better spent on securing the city for a category five hurricane. Choices were made at the local level, and the people of New Orleans bear responsibility for this crisis.

But for five years, the Federal Government has adjusted its priorities in the era of terror by taking on more responsibility for managing calamity at home. This time around, cataclysm has come from tropical waters, not from an Islamic nuke; it is not unreasonable or unfair to judge the Federal Government's management of Katrina as a test of its commitments over the last five years. There is Federal culpability that overarches state and local responsibility.

So now begins a new political era. People will reasonably ask if our commitment to Iraq comes at the expense of security at home. They will ask if the Bush Administration's efforts at protecting the homeland are credible, using Katrina as a litmus test. These questions are fair, and reasonable. President Bush's entire political strategy is being tested. Effectively, we got nuked. And now we see the response.

I am willing to see this as a dry run for a deliberate catastrophic attack. I am willing to admit that this crisis is unprecedented on our soil, and the Federal response is building. I hope that what is learned here can help buttress our long-term security against catastrophic terror. But rhetoric always has a fail safe point; it's effectiveness lasts only as long as it is untested. Ultimately, New Orleans and the Gulf Coast is a test of President Bush's credibility in the war against terror. If we lose credibility, we lose leadership in the war.

Thursday, September 01, 2005


I have an involved essay in the works that I have been working on for weeks. I was going to post it today. I didn't.

Katrina is a pivotal, historic event. While its cause is natural, its reprocussions will be comparable to 9/11. No -- there is no moral equivalence between a natural disaster and the machinations of a fascist suicide cult -- but disasters require moral responses. Adversity tests the caliber of nations.

Historical tipping points are often unexpected, coming from nowhere. President Bush has been confronted now with two major jolts that test American mettle. In pre-9/11 times Hurricane Katrina would have spawned a very different political response, such as during the halcyon days of 1992 when Hurricane Andrew hit Florida. Andrew was a disaster, but the political atmosphere was very different then. The country rallied, and the damage was overcome.

Hurricane Katrina is probably more calamitous than Andrew, exacting more death and damage. An entire city appears to be submerged. A large swath of the Gulf Coast is splintered. Our nation's energy infrastructure is under duress, threatening economic fallout. There's a potential mass migration of refugees. In the current divisive political atmosphere, Katrina's aftermath will be a challenge for any president, much less the one we have.

Andrew Sullivan posted a quote yesterday from Editor and Publisher magazine, that gives a hint of the political firestorm to come:
On June 8, 2004, Walter Maestri, emergency management chief for Jefferson Parish, Louisiana; told the Times-Picayune: "It appears that the money has been moved in the president's budget to handle homeland security and the war in Iraq, and I suppose that's the price we pay. Nobody locally is happy that the levees can't be finished, and we are doing everything we can to make the case that this is a security issue for us."

Also that June, with the 2004 hurricane season starting, the Corps' project manager Al Naomi went before a local agency, the East Jefferson Levee Authority, and essentially begged for $2 million for urgent work that Washington was now unable to pay for. From the June 18, 2004 Times-Picayune:

"The system is in great shape, but the levees are sinking. Everything is sinking, and if we don't get the money fast enough to raise them, then we can't stay ahead of the settlement," he said. "The problem that we have isn't that the levee is low, but that the federal funds have dried up so that we can't raise them."
Mr. Sullivan concludes: "Yes, some would even blame Bush and the war for a hurricane. But blaming Bush and the war for the poor state of New Orleans' levees is a legitimate argument. And it could be a crushing one."

Crushing, indeed. I have long wondered if this nation has the resources to combat global terrorism, extend democracy abroad, manage the disruption of a descendent Europe, and pay rising costs of buttressing our expanding infrastructure from natural disasters. People who are content to point their fingers at President Bush should reserve a few more fingers for the full gamut of challenges of maintaining a cogent, functioning society in the global age.

It was interesting to note that the Department of Homeland Security has responsibilities in managing Katrina's aftermath. Homeland Security seemed to be only about fighting terrorism. But I believe the byline to fighting terror is really just that we're beating back chaos in all forms. Katrina is certainly chaotic. Enter Secretary Michael Chertoff, showing that natural disasters are homeland security issues too.

If people only want this disaster to oscillate with their pet political beefs, then what the heck, I'll join in the charade: I blame bin Laden. I blame terrorists. I blame Palestinians who claim nationality without responsibility. I blame an intransigent, smug and weak Europe. I blame a thoroughly corrupt UN. I blame Katrina's wrath on anyone or anything that unnecessarily taxes our nation's resources, diverting our wealth away from maintaining our own infrastructure. By all means, lets all point fingers now.

Well, let's not. Let's get the Gulf Coast back on its feet. We're all being tested here, not just the storm victims down south. Give to the relief fund of your choice, and take stock in how much you have. We've been blessed.