Thursday, March 02, 2006

Playing with toy soldiers -- the anatomy of failure

Civilization is characterized by the existence of strong centralized governments that organize society and provide things that are essential for a civilized life. This basic fact of social science stands in contradiction to the neocon philosophy that less government is always preferable. I think that this tension between reality and neocon fantasy helps to explain why the aftermath of hurricane Katrina has become so political. People who live in a civilized society expect certain things of their government in times of crisis, and the notion that those things are not government's role has been rejected.

However, today's news (Post, BBC) that the President was briefed before landfall emphasizes the role of simple, non-partisan, incompetence. The flooding of New Orleans following a major hurricane sits alongside a San Francisco earthquake as the most predicted natural catastrophe facing the U.S.. As the storm approached on Sunday, Aug. 29, I checked Google news and found hundreds of "worst case scenario" stories, many of which accurately predicted what happened, including the breach of the levees. It has been clear for a long time that, as well-known as this scenario was, it somehow received much less attention in the Whitehouse than the possibility that someone might highjack a plane using nail clippers. When Bush came out several days later and said "I don't think anybody anticipated the breach of the levees" he made it plain that he doesn't know how to run a country. However, my interpretation that he was not properly briefed must now be replaced by the view that he was briefed but failed to pay attention.

After Katrina, only a fool would place their confidence in this president's judgment, and only a partisan fool would admit to doing so. It may be this fact that has broken down the tacit agreement among Republicans to go along with the Whitehouse. We have seen Republican McCain stand up to Bush and Cheney on their support for torture. We have seen Republican Specter stand up to Bush on domestic surveillance. We have seen many Republicans object to the "buy now and pay later" Bush budget. They do not trust Bush on the security of our ports. The house panel on Katrina, which was set up soon after the storm to be a partisan whitewash, was nevertheless openly critical.

All of this bring to mind a classic Japanese painting (which I saw reprinted in "Go World") of Samurai warriors interrupting a game of go. The players had remained focused on their game even as their house was overrun. ''It is my belief,'' Brown is quoted as telling senators by the New York Times, that if ''we've confirmed that a terrorist has blown up the 17th Street Canal levee, then everybody would have jumped all over that and been trying to do everything they could.'' He has a point. The Bush administration reminds me of men playing with toy soldiers while the house burns around them. No one with any ability is in charge, and that is scary.

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