Friday, September 09, 2005

Where to lay the blame? Krauthammer on Katrina

I rarely quote him here -- and my guest blogger properly ripped him apart not too long ago -- but Charles Krauthammer has a sober, sensible column in today's Post. Focusing on where to lay the blame for Katrina -- or, rather, for the aftermath thereof, it's a must-read.

To be sure, one of Krauthammer's intentions is to deflect some of the criticism, some of the intense, knee-jerk partisan criticism, away from President Bush. But he is nonetheless non-partisan enough here to lay the blame where it truly belongs:
  1. Nature (or Nature's God)
  2. Mayor Nagin
  3. Governor Blanco
  4. (former) FEMA Director Brown
  5. President Bush
  6. Congress
  7. The American people

As some of you know, I've written about blame only reluctantly. At first, I even objected to laying any blame at all, mostly because I thought the focus should be on the relief and recovery efforts in New Orleans and along the Gulf Coast rather than on politics. More recently, I've been critical of President Bush's lack of leadership, though I've acknowledged all along that there's more than enough blame to go around and that Nagin, Blanco, and Brown in particular deserve a good deal of it.

I'm not quite sure what my own rank-ordering of targets would be, and I'm not about to list the blameworthy according to culpability, but I do think that Krauthammer is right.

Almost. Sort of. To a point. Or... not.

It may very well be that Nagin and Blanco -- that is, municipal and state government -- deserve much of the blame for the initial incompetence of the relief and recovery efforts, but Bush is the president. In a time of crisis, the American people turn to their president for leadership, that is, for courage, conviction, and direction. On a logistical level, Nagin and Blanco clearly could have done better, but on a moral level, the level where statecraft is soulcraft, the level that he himself has touted as one of his key qualifications to be president, Bush failed miserably in those first few days after Katrina came ashore.

When Americans, and particularly those hardest hit by the hurricane, needed leadership, Bush was simply governing in denial -- as, to a certain extent, he still is. Some of the criticism levelled at Bush in recent days is, I agree, unfounded -- I think we all need to step back and grab some perspective -- but that doesn't mean that Bush shouldn't be held accountable for what went wrong, or at least for part of what went wrong, and certainly for what he didn't do, or at least for what he could have done better. Bush has the bully pulpit of the presidency at his disposal, after all, not to mention the entire executive branch of the federal government, including FEMA. He should have used the former to say the right things and the latter to mobilize the relief and recovery efforts over and against any opposition or dithering from Nagin and Blanco. Instead, he said some of the wrong things (praising Brown for doing a great job, claiming that no one thought the levees would give out, etc.) and failed to mobilize the federal government at a time when determined leadership was needed above all else.

Krauthammer is right to blame Bush for being "[l]ate, slow, and simply out of tune with the urgency and magnitude of the disaster". And, sure, if we're going to rank-order the blameworthy, then perhaps Bush does fall somewhere around Nagin, Blanco, and Brown. But, again, he's the president. And I, for one, expect more from the occupant of the Oval Office, the most powerful man in the world. It may be easy to blame state and local officials, but, let's face it, state and local officials aren't generally elected because they're prepared -- in terms of moral character, leadership skills, and overall competency -- to deal with crises of this magnitude, they're elected because of their positions (and records) on jobs, taxes, crime, service-delivery items like education, and a few wedge issues like abortion. Presidents, on the contrary, are elected precisely (it is hoped) because they possess the requisite moral character to govern the most powerful country in the world. And this president in particular ran on character. Gore and Kerry may have had the nuanced plans to deal with Iraq, the economy, the environment, and so on, but Bush countered with claims of rectitude and fortitude, even godliness. After 9/11, he argued, he was the right man to lead America through troubled times.

Well, where was all that "leadership" last week? No, don't tell me that Nagin and Blanco didn't do their jobs. Don't scapegoat Brown or Chertoff, Bush's subordinates. Tell me what Bush, President Bush, the most powerful man in the world, was doing to lead America through one of her most challenging periods, when a major metropolitan area found itself helpless, when tens of thousands of people found themselves stranded, when the death toll was climbing well into the thousands and the situation was getting worse.

Bush wanted to take the credit after 9/11. He wanted to be the one to protect America from her enemies. He wanted the responsibility that comes with being president. That's how he sold himself to the American people last year. Which is why, when things go wrong, like they did last week, there's really no one more deserving of blame than Bush himself.

He asked for it. Let him have it.

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