Wednesday, September 14, 2005

Parsing blame

Speaking at a news conference yesterday, President Bush took responsibility for the failure of the government’s response to Hurricane Katrina. Kind of.

"Katrina exposed serious problems in our response capability at all levels of government, and to the extent that the federal government didn't fully do its job right, I take responsibility.

I don’t mean to quibble, but do we have to parse words here? Is it all really going to come down to what the meaning of the word "its" is?

Over the past week, administration officials have taken great pains to explain how our Constitution delegates power to the states, and how federal intervention required a request in writing. While cable networks broadcasted images to the world of people without food or water in downtown New Orleans, federal troops lay idly by at military bases a helicopter flight away. All this, it would seem, because federalist rules requiring a written request had not been followed properly.

The problem for President Bush is that the singular message of his presidency has been that the world has changed since 9/11 and we have to change the ways that we do things, at home as well as in the world. The creation of the Department of Homeland Security. The passage of the Patriot Act. The recommendations of the 9/11 Commission. All of these suggested the imperative of changing our preparedness for emergency situations. Central to improving our preparedness has been addressing the coordination of local, state and federal resources.

We may have done OK in the much ballyhooed emergency preparedness exercises that have been held around the country over the past year, such as the simulated dirty nuclear bomb attacks in Seattle and Chicago which purported to demonstrate a seamless coordination of resources through secure video lines. However, when Hurricane Katrina arrived––even with several days of advanced warning––we learned that four years of working to improve our emergency response systems has produced nothing.

Tomorrow, President Bush is scheduled to deliver a major address in Louisiana on all of this. By then, it may have occurred to his advisors that parsing the meaning of the word "its" will not constitute an adequate response. The fact is that from the day he stood on the pile of rubble that was the World Trade Center and spoke to the world through a megaphone, President Bush took on the challenge of improving our nation's preparedness for the next emergency situation. And five years later, we are not prepared.

Leading the Global War on Terrorism is not all about talking tough and invoking patriotic slogans, it is about intelligence and preparation. The President’s supporters are quick to cite the fact that the United States has not been attacked over the past four years as evidence of success. So too, then, the President must be prepared to recognize the quality of governmental response in the wake of Katrina as evidence of failure. It is that simple. The federal government did not do its job right, and in the realm of emergency preparedness since 9/11, "its" job is to make sure that the entire system is working. "Its" job is leadership.

Which also happens to be the President’s job, for better or for worse.

1 comment:

Caleab said...

Nice piece. I'm very impressed with your writings. I wonder if the Bush administration could take a lesson from you in comprehensive thinking.