Thursday, September 08, 2005

What if Nothing Really Changes After Katrina?

So far, the Bush administration’s strategy for dealing with the major league screw-ups everyone with a TV witnessed last week is, basically, to hope the criticisms go away. That approach has worked in the past, when questions were raised about whether 9/11 might have been prevented or why no WMD were found in Iraq. Bush waited things out and shrugged off fallout from each would-be political albatross.

This time, one hopes, it will be different. There are signs that even some in the president’s own party recognize the enormity of the administration’s clueless, incompetent response to Katrina. Susan Collins, a Republican Senator from Maine, has described the response (in a joint statement issued with Senator Joe Lieberman) as an “immense failure”, and has promised to investigate the “lack of preparedness and inadequate response” to Katrina. David Vitter, Republican Senator from Louisiana, gave the federal government a grade of F for its response to the storm. Newt Gingrich asked how we could be confident about the government’s ability to respond to a terrorist attack when it couldn’t handle Katrina.

There will surely be an investigation. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist and Speaker Dennis Hastert have announced the formation of a “Hurricane Katrina Joint Review Committee” (House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi says Democrats will not participate, charging the committee is set up along partisan lines designed to insulate the president from blame). But what will an investigation, what can an investigation, accomplish, if the president continues to refuse to accept and assign blame? As of now, it is not even clear that he will fire the bumbling FEMA Director, Michael Brown, who is woefully unqualified for his job and seems far out of his element (which previously involved Arabian horses). We have a president who seems congenitally incapable of admitting a mistake or holding a friend accountable. Remember last year’s debate when Bush struggled to think of a mistake he’d made? He couldn’t come up with one. Can he now? Congresswoman Pelosi says that she urged the president to fire FEMA Director Brown. The president asked her why. Pelosi responded, “because of all that went wrong, of all that didn’t go right last week.” The president’s breathtaking response was “what didn’t go right?” Even now, when thousands American citizens were abandoned by their government, left to die in the hell of the Superdome, the president can’t own up to a mistake and can’t acknowledge reality.

From where the president sits, why should he concede anything? Bush does not face another election campaign. Certainly he’d like to see his party do well in the off-year elections, but I doubt that is enough of a motivating factor to produce fundamental change in Bush’s make-up. What effect will the investigation promised by Frist and Hastert have? There was of course a commission that investigated 9/11. President Bush did not suffer any obvious negative consequences when that investigation concluded. What will a Katrina commission do? It will not ask the president to resign and it cannot force him to do anything.

What happened last week -- government officials unprepared and ignorant, thousands dead, thousands left to fend for themselves, -- is too serious for the typical months-long investigation followed by a milquetoast report that has no real effect on anything. It is clear that our government was not prepared to deal with Hurricane Katrina. What else is it unprepared to deal with? Do we have to wait for the next disaster to find out? Whether anything will really change will depend on a sustained, insistent national outcry. We owe it to those who were abandoned in New Orleans and elsewhere to make sure the president can’t shrug this one off, and that real changes in emergency preparation are made that might save lives in the future.


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