To understand the history of the Bush administration’s response to disaster, just follow the catchphrases.
First, look at 2001 congressional testimony by Joseph Allbaugh, President Bush’s first pick to head the Federal Emergency Management Agency. FEMA, he said, would emphasize “Responsibility and Accountability” (capital letters and boldface in the original statement). He repeated the phrase several times.
What Allbaugh seems to have meant was that state and local government officials shouldn’t count on FEMA to bail them out if they didn’t prepare adequately for disaster. They should accept responsibility for protecting their constituents, and be held accountable if they don’t.
But those were rules for the little people. Now that the Bush administration has botched its own response to disaster, we’re not supposed to play the “blame game.” Scott McClellan used that phrase 15 times over the course of just two White House press briefings.
It might make sense to hold off on the criticism if this were the first big disaster on Bush’s watch, or if the chain of mistakes in handling Hurricane Katrina were out of character. But even with the most generous possible assessment, this is the administration’s second big policy disaster, after Iraq. And the chain of mistakes was perfectly in character – there are striking parallels between the errors the administration made in Iraq and the errors it made last week.
In Iraq, the administration displayed a combination of paralysis and denial after the fall of Baghdad, as uncontrolled looting destroyed much of Iraq’s infrastructure.
The same deer-in-the-headlights immobility prevailed as Katrina approached and struck the Gulf Coast. The storm gave plenty of warning. By the afternoon of Monday, August 29, the flooding of New Orleans was well under way – city officials publicly confirmed a breach in the 17th Street Canal at 2 p.m. Yet on Tuesday federal officials were still playing down the problem, and large-scale federal aid didn’t arrive until last Friday.
In Iraq the Coalition Provisional Authority, which ran the country during the crucial first year after Saddam’s fall – the period when an effective government might have forestalled the nascent insurgency ­– was staffed on the basis of ideological correctness and personal connections rather than qualifications. At one point Ari Fleischer’s brother was in charge of private-sector development.
The administration followed the same principles in staffing FEMA, which became a highly professional organization during the Clinton years, but under Bush reverted to its former status as a “turkey farm,” a source of patronage jobs.
As Bloomberg News puts it, the agency’s “upper ranks are mostly staffed with people who share two traits: loyalty to President George W. Bush and little or no background in emergency management.” By now everyone knows FEMA’s current head went from overseeing horse shows to overseeing the nation’s response to disaster, with no obvious qualifications other than the fact that he was Allbaugh’s college roommate.
All that’s missing from the Katrina story is an expensive reconstruction effort, with lucrative deals for politically connected companies, that fails to deliver essential services. But give it time – they’re working on that, too.
Why did the administration make the same mistakes twice? Because it paid no political price the first time.
Can the administration escape accountability again? Some of the tactics it has used to obscure its failure in Iraq won’t be available this time. The reality of the catastrophe was right there on our TVs, although FEMA is now trying to prevent the media from showing pictures of the dead. And people who ask hard questions can’t be accused of undermining the troops.
But the other factors that allowed the administration to evade responsibility for the mess in Iraq are still in place. The media will be tempted to revert to he-said-she-said stories rather than damning factual accounts. The effort to shift blame to state and local officials is under way. Smear campaigns against critics will start soon, if they haven’t already. And raw political power will be used to block any independent investigation.Will this be enough to let the administration get away with another failure? Let’s hope not: If the administration isn’t held accountable for what just happened, it will keep repeating its mistakes. Michael Brown and Michael Chertoff will receive presidential medals, and the next disaster will be even worse.