Walking the neocon walk and talking the neocon talk in the wake of Katrina
Carlton M. Caves
2005 September 30

A prominent strand of the neocon response to Hurricane Katrina is to contrast anecdotal evidence of effective relief action originating in the private sector with the ineffectiveness of the governmental response and then breezily to wash the right's hands of the affair. "Big government failed---again," they say. "We told you government is not the answer. You should have listened to us." Does anyone smell a rat here? We did listen to them. We elected their man as President---twice, for God's sake (well, actually once, but you know that story)---and he and his gang promptly and wholeheartedly put core neocon policies into effect, cutting taxes for the rich and gutting the domestic side of the federal government. The ineffective federal response to Katrina is a direct result of these policies.

The point agency for the federal response to natural disasters is FEMA. Never a model government agency under Reagan and Bush I, it was transformed into an effective responder to natural disasters under President Clinton and Vice President Gore and their FEMA director, James Lee Witt. So what did Bush do? He cut FEMA's budget, reduced its professional staff, downgraded its importance, and staffed it with political hacks having little or no experience in disaster management, with the inevitable consequence that it failed dramatically in the lead-up to and immediate aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

Listening to neocons is not the answer to our problems. It is the problem.

Conservatives of the old school were opposed to expansive government, often rightly so, but when they ascended to power, they could generally be counted on to run the government competently and efficiently. The time when that was true is long gone, however, the present generation of conservatives being quite different. Neocons, as exemplified by Bush and his gang, don't give a hoot about effective government. They are all about an ideology that declares government, except for the military, to be irrelevant at best and positively evil at worst. They are uninterested in or even hostile to government, except insofar as it can be turned into a gigantic maw that transforms tax revenues directly into benefits for their corporate and big-money allies, with the occasional bone tossed to the religious right to keep the voting base happy.

The neocons gut federal agencies and run what is left ineptly, all this providing them plenty of failures to point to when they need evidence that government is not the answer. This is called walking the neocon walk to support the neocon talk.

In demanding that Bush and his gang be held accountable for their failures regarding Katrina, it is important, I think, to focus narrowly on the federal government's actions during the immediate pre- and post-Katrina period. The Bush gang's inept performance during this period illuminates other problems with their policies, some of which are closely related to Katrina's impact on people and communities and infrastructure, but diverting the discussion onto these more general questions just makes it harder to draw a direct line between the problems and the Bush gang's policies and general incompetence.

In this spirit let's make a list of things we're not talking about. We're not talking about Bush's being somehow responsible for the hurricane itself, say, through resisting any action on global warming. His inaction on global warming is deplorable, and it is a reasonable hypothesis that global warming will lead to more and stronger hurricanes. Nonetheless, it is probably too early to see much of this effect now, although the potential connection to the current round of violent hurricanes is a serious enough idea that scientists are actively investigating it.

Nor is this about the long-term preparation for a major hurricane in New Orleans. It is true that Bush and his crew consistently cut the budget for strengthening the levees protecting New Orleans, but the condition of the levees and their ability to protect the communities and infrastructure of southern Louisiana is a task of generations, not to be laid at the foot of any one administration and ultimately doomed to failure anyway.

Finally, this is not about deliberate discrimination against African-Americans, despite their having been the main victims of Katrina in New Orleans. The post-Katrina tragedy in New Orleans shone a bright light on the economic fault line that runs through American life, revealing in stark fashion that many African-Americans live on the wrong side. It is true that the neocons pretend that this fault line doesn't exist, and it is also true that their policies exacerbate it. This is a transcendent national issue, which is not going to disappear, despite the neocons' wishing it would. It should not be ignored, but it is not what we're talking about here.

No, what we're talking about is the Bush administration's failure to prepare before Katrina and its failed response just after. We're talking about Bush's systematic gutting of FEMA and his staffing it with political hacks. We're talking about his own ill-informed response and the failure of him and the responsible federal officials he appointed to be prepared.

Katrina is not the kind of teacher one would prefer, but she is the kind one listens to. She mows down the front row, but after that, she does have everyone's attention. We should take full advantage of this moment of national attention. The two most important lessons Katrina teaches have to do with the neocon ideology and with Bush's disturbing ignorance of the world.

Despite neocon fantasies about the sufficiency of private responses to natural disasters, a catastrophe on the scale of Katrina requires an effective response from government. The first lesson of Katrina is that elected officials must pay attention to making government work. It is no excuse to say that big government tends toward bureaucracy and inefficiency. Knowing these tendencies, elected officials must overcome them, since where government plays an essential role, there is no alternative to making it work. Doing so requires adequate funding, persistent effort, effective administration, and inspiring leadership, at least occasionally, for the federal work force. Bush and his gang provide none of these.

Bush is always talking about how he and others in his administration are, to use his favorite phrase, "working hard." In fact, what he and his gang mainly work at is staying in power. They put little effort into making the domestic side of government work, because they don't believe it can work. If you elect people who think government is not the answer, then sure enough, it won't have any answers when you need them. If you elect people who believe that the people always know how to spend their money better than the government, then the people have no right to expect that government will know what to do in the face of a catastrophe like Katrina. Instead, you will get Bush cronies like Joe Allbaugh and Michael Browne to head FEMA and to oversee its descent into dysfunction. Katrina teaches us that we need to get serious about electing leaders who are committed to making government work. Remember all the fun the right poked at Clinton/Gore's "re-inventing government." At least they were paying attention, and the program did improve the efficiency and responsiveness of the federal bureaucracy.

The second key lesson of Katrina is that Bush is a peculiarly incurious and uninformed person, unable to assess the seriousness of situations and to take timely and appropriate action. There was a hint of this in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, but for me the telltale clue came with the South Asian tsunami last December. I first heard about the tsunami shortly after it occurred on Sunday, December 26, from a glance at a web-based news report just as my family and I were leaving Durango, Colorado, for the four-hour drive back to Albuquerque after a few days of skiing. By Monday morning, a small amount of time spent browsing the web had convinced me that the initial casualty figures, horrendous though they were, were just the tip of the iceberg, because there were no reports from the areas that were clearly most severely impacted, almost certainly because they had been literally wiped out. And so it was.

On that same Monday, Bush pledged a paltry $4M, raised by the end of the day to a still pathetic $15M. He only got it right on Friday, when the US pledge was increased to $350M. The eventual result was an effective, widely admired US-led relief effort. But what was Bush doing that whole week, when other nations and institutions had long since recognized the scale of the catastrophe and responded appropriately? He evidently didn't know enough to assess the situation accurately, nor did he know how to inform himself in a timely fashion. How is it that he could know less than a casual observer like me? Heck, he didn't even have to use the internet. The President has the enormous resources of the entire federal government to call on, but Bush apparently didn't know how to marshal those resources. My thought at the time was, "God help us if we need a quick decision from this guy." And so we have his response to Katrina.

The President diddled in Crawford, apparently not much concerned, while Katrina approached and plowed into the Gulf Coast. His fatal ignorance is typified by his now-famous statement to Diane Sawyer on the September 1 edition of ABC's Good Morning America, three days after Katrina swamped New Orleans: "I don't think anybody anticipated the breach of the levees" that protected New Orleans from flooding.

It has been known for decades that New Orleans was a disaster waiting to happen, that a hurricane-induced storm surge or levee breach would flood the city catastrophically and that the floodwaters wouldn't drain away because most of the city is below sea level. I first learned about New Orleans's peril---and, more generally, that of all of southern Louisiana---from a typically superb John McPhee article entitled "Atchafalaya," which ran in the February 23, 1987, issue of The New Yorker, part of a series on "The Control of Nature." In 2001 FEMA designated a major hurricane hitting New Orleans as one of the three most serious threats facing the US (the other two being a terrorist attack on New York and a major earthquake in San Francisco). There have been repeated explicit warnings in the press of the dangers facing New Orleans from a major hurricane. A sampling includes the following:

Just the titles of these stories are sufficient to make the point: anybody who cared to be informed was aware that a major hurricane could drown New Orleans and destroy it. State and local officials are certainly to blame for not confronting the problem more aggressively, but Bush didn't even seem to be aware of the danger. It's not that the President is supposed to know everything or do everything, but he should know something, and he should know enough to activate the federal bureaucracy with an appropriate sense of urgency. With Bush, it's hard to identify exactly what it is he does know. In his entire life, he has never demonstrated much interest in or aptitude for anything, except being a good-old-boy nice guy, if you like that sort of thing. The harsh conclusion is that he doesn't know enough to be President, nor does he know how to or care to inform himself. Ideology entirely aside, Bush is not up to the job, and we're stuck with him for another three-plus years. God help us.

In addition to these two key lessons, Katrina invites us to contemplate broader questions, and I can't resist mentioning two. With the Louisiana and Mississippi coasts in ruins, now is the time to plan a careful reconstruction that is environmentally and economically responsible. Unfortunately, the Bush administration's inept response to Katrina has eliminated what little chance there was for a carefully planned reconstruction. The Bush gang will now pull out all the stops to buy back the votes of the region: spend, spend, spend, with no regard for planning a better place; put everything back just as it was as fast as possible. Anyone who doesn't believe this should be invited to explain why Karl Rove has been put in charge. The result will be the Bush style of government at its worst: pump out money as fast possible to cronies and the core constituencies. We saw it after 9/11 in the rush to hire TSA personnel, we saw it big-time in Iraq with no-bid contracts and a lack of accountability for reconstruction funds, and we're seeing it now in the no-bid contracts let to favored firms in the aftermath of Katrina.

Having said this, I think it very unlikely that any democratic government could withstand the pressure to rebuild the Gulf Coast pretty much the way it was (if I had one wish, however, I would forbid re-floating Mississippi's Gulf Coast casinos, whose off-shore location is an environmental travesty and an invitation to disaster, dictated solely by the need to salve the consciences of Mississippi's Southern Baptists). The most pressing issues are in southern Louisiana, which is simply too fragile to support the several interests that fight over it---off-shore oil, shipping, industry, fishing, communities. The entirety of southern Louisiana is part of the Mississippi delta, built by the big river as it dumps the sediments of half a continent on its approach to the Gulf of Mexico. Where the Mississippi flows, its sediments build up the land, and where it doesn't, the land sinks into the Gulf. The river doesn't play favorites, however; about once a millennium, it shifts its course when its channel becomes too high and it discovers an easier way to the sea, thereby dispersing its sediments over all of southern Louisiana.

As one learns from McPhee's article, the present Mississippi is overdue for a shift and is only prevented from doing so by the valiant, but ultimately futile efforts of the Army Corps of Engineers. The Corps's policy of confining the Mississippi and other rivers of the delta within levees sews the seeds of its own destruction. The river beds get higher, and the surrounding land sinks, leaving the rivers flowing along elevated aqueducts of ever-increasing height. This policy cannot be sustained forever. Sometime during this century, the elevated Mississippi will flex its muscles during a large flood, toss the Corps's constructions aside like toys, and go where it wants to go, probably along the course of the Atchafalaya, west of its present channel. Baton Rouge and the industries along the present course will be left high and dry, and New Orleans will become a backwater next to a salt-water bayou. That is when we will really have to deal with the hubris of asking too much of southern Louisiana.

A final question concerns the proper role of the military in our national life. Bush is already talking about assigning to the military the lead role in responding to large natural disasters. This is a tempting proposition, since we should get a good return on the enormous resources we pour into the military, but my considered view is that relying on the military in domestic emergencies is yet another example of the increasing militarization of our national life. We should resist the temptation to go down that road, for down it lies an increasingly powerful and ultimately too powerful military. We should not be asking the military to take over domestic functions just because the military is the part of the federal government that works best; instead, we should be making the domestic side of government work as well as the military.

Addendum: 2005 October 9

It is perhaps worth adding that since World War II, the Army Corps of Engineers has had very generous funding, especially for Louisiana, which gets the largest amount of Corps funding of any state. The problem is that most of the Corps's projects, in Louisiana and nationwide, are pork-barrel water and navigation projects that are pushed and funded by local and state politicians. These projects have generally had little or no economic justification and have often been environmental disasters and, in Louisiana, have had nothing to do with protecting communities and infrastructure from hurricanes or, even worse, have had a negative impact in this regard. An example of the last is the cutting of navigation and other channels through the marshes of southern Louisiana, which has accelerated the loss of the wetlands that provide some protection against storm surges.

Addendum: 2005 October 17

A welcome note of sanity today: Mississippi's governor, Haley Barbour, signed into law a bill allowing that state's off-shore casinos, all of which were destroyed by Katrina, to rebuild up to 800 feet inland from the shore. Not that I'm particularly in favor of gambling, but if you're going to have it, forcing the casinos to locate on dangerous and environmentally irresponsible sites, just to satisfy the delicate sensibilities of religious conservatives, is both silly and stupid.

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