Column: The Public Eye: Three Strikes and Counting By BOB BURNETT

Friday September 09, 2005

Watching the Bush administration’s bumbling response to Hurricane Katrina, one felt a chilling sense of déjà vu. American has seen this ineptitude before: first with 9/11—George frozen while reading The Pet Goat and meandering across the country on Air Force One; and then the “liberation” of Baghdad—chaos fanning the fires of insurgency. History will remember that George Bush had three chances at crisis leadership, and struck out each time. 

There are disturbing similarities between all three failures. In each case, the White House was warned that if they pursued their policies, there was the potential for great harm to the nation. Before 9/11, the administration was cautioned by the bipartisan Hart-Rudman Commission on National Security and their own counter-terrorism adviser, Richard Clarke, about the possibility of a terrorist attack on the United States. While the Department of Defense planned the invasion of Iraq, the State Department advised the president of ominous problems with an occupation. Early in 2001, a FEMA report identified hurricane damage to New Orleans as one of the three likely catastrophes facing the U.S. and the Army Corps of Engineers begged for money to bolster the New Orleans levees against such an event. 

In all three instances the administration ignored the warnings. The basis for their refusal was not factual, but ideological. Before 9/11, Bush and company stubbornly clung to the view that the greatest danger to the nation came from rogue states—such as Iraq and North Korea—and downplayed the threat of Al Qaeda. Before the invasion of Iraq, White House Neo-Cons argued that the occupation would be a cakewalk; Vice President Cheney famously predicted that U.S. forces would be “greeted with open arms, as liberators.” Before Hurricane Katrina, the administration maintained that the greatest danger to America was from terrorists located in Iraq, and diverted money targeted for New Orleans to the military and the Department of Homeland Security. 

It was not sufficient for the Bush administration to ignore these warnings; it punished those who delivered them. Richard Clarke was demoted and then driven out of the administration. Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld forced the retirement of General John Shalikashvili, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, after he argued that that the United States did not have enough troops for the occupation. Similarly, Mike Parker, assistant secretary of the Army and director of the Corps of Engineers, was forced to resign after complaining to Congress about budget cuts that effected New Orleans levee projects. 

As each event occurred, there were massive communication failures within the f federal government. Before 9/11, there were botched information exchanges between the FBI and the intelligence community; on the day of the attack there were coordination issues between the FAA and the military. When American troops seized Baghdad, there was a failure to establish a command and control system; as a result there was widespread looting, which resulted in severe damage to the Iraqi infrastructure. When Katrina rolled over Louisiana and Mississippi there was, once again, an inability to construct a command and control system; this produced the chaos in New Orleans. 

In all three cases, the implosion of the Bush administration can be attributed to their personnel policies—rather than hire the best-qualified individual for key jobs, they assigned them to the most loyal or best connected Bush supporters. Before 9/11, the counter-terrorism adviser to the National Security Council, Richard Clarke, was demoted at the request of Bush favorite Condoleezza Rice, who was threatened by Clarke’s competence. In Iraq, much of the disarray of the U.S. occupation was due to the poor judgment shown by ill-qualified Bush appointees assigned to the Coalition Provisional Authority. The head of FEMA, Michael Brown, was selected because of his connections and had no relevant management experience, which was made painfully obvious by his failed leadership in the wake of Katrina. 

Finally, in each instance the Bush administration fought Congressional efforts to study what happened. The White House resisted the formation of the 9/11 Commission for more than a year. So far, the Bush administration has successfully bucked all attempts to review the disastrous occupation of Iraq. On Sept. 6, President Bush resisted the call for an independent commission to study the administration response to Hurricane Katrina. 

Since his celebrated speech to the nation, on Sept. 20, 2001, George Bush has enjoyed bipartisan support largely because of his solemn promise to keep America safe. Despite the problems of the Iraqi occupation, the most recent Gallup poll indicated that Americans continue to believe that the President has done a good job defending our country.  

The reality is that the Bush administration has had three opportunities to lead during a national crisis, and has failed each time. Experts say that the response to hurricane Katrina indicates that our defenses have actually grown weaker since 9/11. In baseball, one gets three strikes and then is out; national politics is not as simple a game and, therefore, George Bush is still standing at the plate, swinging wildly. How many strikes can we afford to give him? 


Bob Burnett is a Berkeley writer and activist. He can be reached at bobburnett@comcast.net.