I’ve obviously missed my vocation as a cartoonist: By Sunday I had lost count of the number of them who all seemed to know that, if Saddam Hussein was still the absolute ruler of Iraq, the city of New Orleans would now be bone-dry. (I suppose that’s why certain attitudes are described as “cartoonish.”) They have a two- or three-word caption to spread this ready-made piece of populism, which it will take me at least a thousand words to rebut.
It was actually the weekend before the Katrina disaster that I received an e-mail from a brilliant friend, who asked if I realized what would happen to the Iraq debate if the hurricane really hit. And of course I could at once easily see what an apparent shortage of National Guardsmen, or any lack of preparation, would look like. And if this tiny thought can occur in my mind, then what can one say about the mind of the White House? The president could have seen that a major, historic American city was in danger of being lost and could have easily got there beforehand to ask all state and city officials if there was anything they might have overlooked. A few thousand pallets of bottled water, for example, might have come in handy for a moment when there would be too much water and also too little. And remember that some reliable predictions were that the disaster would be even worse than it was, or is. Remember, too, that the same president assumed a take-charge, back-from-vacation attitude when it was none of his business and when the already-dead Terri Schiavo was being hawked up and down the land by the religious wing-nuts, as if she had been resurrected on video. And then to get to the city late, after a casual fly-by, and to say that nobody had ever thought the levees might cave in …
So, George Bush has already paid, as he should, a weighty political price for his literally fatal insouciance. What I cannot understand is why the people of Baghdad and Basra should be punished for a meteorological catastrophe in the Gulf of Mexico. We should get out and leave them to their own devices. We need the stuff at home, goddamn it. This has all the charm and beauty of John Kerry saying that we ought not to be opening firehouses in Baghdad while closing them in the United States. It also has all the easy appeal of a zero-sum, provincial, isolationist mentality.
Lt. Gen. Steve Blum was able to tell Donald Rumsfeld early last week that he could put 40,000 troops into the area at once and double that figure if he was asked to. Huge naval vessels like the USS Iwo Jima and Bataan, which can desalinize and pump thousands of gallons of fresh water, and which have thousands of potential hospital beds, were free and on call in the vicinity, as were numberless helicopters. The 82nd Airborne and the First Air Cavalry, now deployed, have acquired huge experience in civil affairs, emergency repair, water provision, and other necessary skills—in guess which recent theater of operations. National Guardsmen from several dozen states, many of them also toughened by hard conditions in Iraq, were in position on time. The whereabouts of some Louisiana Guard units is immaterial, because they would have needed massive augmentation in any case. And only 100 National Guardsmen from Louisiana failed to show up for work, which is remarkable in the circumstances and contrasts vividly with the disgraceful performance of the New Orleans Police Department. But the president is not permitted by the Constitution to use the military for law enforcement, or not without the permission of the governor of the state, and the fuss about this is at least partly a cover for a feeble governor and a flaky mayor, who seek to displace the blame.
In other words, whatever the failures of FEMA may have been, or of the “Homeland Security” apparatus, the one thing that cannot be blamed is the “over-stretch” of our military and Guard forces. To the contrary, once ordered, they performed and are performing magnificently and were able to bring an immense spare capacity to bear.
The United States has a $10 trillion economy and a massive and sophisticated military, which is quite capable in competent hands of combating rogue-state dictators and jihadist maniacs, while simultaneously ensuring the safety of all its citizens, at least against the more predictable acts of God or the more predictable attacks of the extremely godly. And there are billions left over after these expenditures, which we choose to waste (in my opinion) on the huge diversion of manpower and resources to the “Drug War” and to “Missile Defense.” Let us by all means have a national debate on where the fat is and where the vulnerabilities are and decrease the gap between them. The administration used to argue that Saddam was an “imminent” threat. I must say that I preferred to state that he was a permanent one (which, by the way, is much more menacing and exhausting). The waters of Lake Pontchartrain were a permanent threat, understood long before the subject of Iraq came up, and more recently an imminent one. In neither case was there any alibi for being ill-prepared, or unwilling or unable to act. All state and local and federal authorities were on notice.
Just for a thought experiment, suppose we were all agreed that the Iraq engagement was a necessary one, or a just one. Would we then say that we couldn’t keep it up because it might expose New Orleans to flooding? I presume not. Thus, those who try to connect the two problems in the same breath are (again I presume) already sure in their own minds that the struggle in Iraq is not worthwhile. Let them by all means stick to this view. But the warnings that Louisiana and Mississippi and Alabama were in danger were warnings that can be dated back years ago.
You hear people saying that Bush showed his true colors by telling Diane Sawyer off-camera that the flood relief won’t require a tax increase. But what was to prevent the relevant states from raising a special tax, five or 10 years back, to make certain that the levees and wetlands were enough of a barrier to any foreseeable tide? What was to prevent Congress from becoming seized of the matter, perhaps as a result of some fearless Democratic initiative, and appropriating special funds to augment the effort? The most damning quote now in circulation, from a knowledgeable official in New Orleans, says that the extra money for the levees had been compromised for the war in Iraq and for Homeland Security. Well, were the local politicians and people against spending the money on “Homeland Security”?
The Constitution is clear on this point: The president doesn’t control the purse. An administration cannot spend money that has not been voted. A huge sum of money was voted by Congress, almost unanimously as I recall, for the reconstruction of Iraq. It was felt that we had a national interest in preventing an important state in another Gulf from collapsing into beggary and terror and anarchy. If you want a scandal to investigate, ask yourself why so little of that money has actually yet been spent. But if it had been, or was being, don’t delude yourself for one moment that those dollars were stolen from Bourbon Street. By the same or a similar token, don’t imagine that if the Kyoto Treaty had been properly signed by Clinton and Gore, which it wasn’t because it didn’t pass the Senate, or if every chlorofluorocarbon emission had been stopped 20 years ago, that we’d all be happily going to hear jazz at the Preservation Hall. Those who find themselves in the midst of a ruined city may be excused some but not all of their hysteria. Those who blog about it from dry land have no such excuse.
A favorite trope among those who try to politicize the justified outrage over New Orleans is the plight of the slum-dwellers and the dark-skinned, and quite right, too. But it’s highly objectionable to be told, by those who go on in this way, that we should instantly dump the Iraqis and Kurds who are fighting for their lives in a slum that could become another slaughterhouse and plague-spot. There is something degrading and suspect here—why lavish any of our care and resources on the wogs? Does this suggestion do anything to diminish xenophobia and resentment “at home,” at just the time and just the place where we don’t need it? Am I expected to tell a homeless woman in Biloxi that she has just been ripped off by an Ay-rab? A scuttle from Iraq or from Afghanistan (where the Kabul-Kandahar highway also took a lot of time and equipment and manpower to build) would add to the number of stricken and broken cities in the world, and not reduce it. If liberalism and humanitarianism do not mean internationalism, they mean precisely nothing. Shame on those who try to turn the needy and the victims against each other.