Monday, September 12, 2005

Bush’s Perfect Storm

I think it is ironic that Hurricane Katrina, a random natural disaster would shed so much light on Bush’s leadership as a president. At first, the problems on the Gulf Coast all seemed to be due to Hurricane Katrina’s wrath. But in many ways, it was careful and deliberate planning that caused the damage and destruction. The writing has been on the wall for New Orleans and the Gulf Coast for this type of event. There have been numerous projections and warnings issued by state, local and federal officials. There was even a simulation, done quite recently and funded by FEMA. The drill predicted almost everything we are now seeing on the ground. Everything except the problems created by FEMA and the current administration.

George Bush stated during his first presidential campaign that Natural Disasters test the mettle of a leader. You would think that having said this that he would have worked hard to avoid any potential problems in dealing with one. But natural disasters of this scale have a way of revealing the impact of decisions made over years, not just those made in the immediate aftermath. Perhaps the most monumental of these was the decision to install Michael Brown as the head of FEMA. George Bush demands loyalty, respects loyalty and rewards loyalty. Hopefully, it was loyalty that got Michael Brown his job because it certainly wasn’t his experience managing natural disasters. Bush’s loyalty priority means that Brown was put in place over many other qualified people. This had little impact as long as the agency wasn’t needed but problems became strikingly clear when the time came for strong and decisive leadership.

FEMA’s response to Katrina is even more of an issue given all the changes George Bush has put in place in the aftermath of 9/11. The creation of the Department of Homeland Security and moving FEMA under it was done under the pretense of making the country safer in the face of natural and man-made disasters. Katrina was the fist big test of the effectiveness of these changes and from most accounts things are not better.

These are possibly the most dramatic examples of Bush’s “mettle” but there are more. Along with the predictions of the Gulf Coast’s vulnerability came numerous requests from the Army Corp of Engineers for a budget to upgrade the levees surrounding New Orleans. But Bush delayed the approvals and cut the budgets for these projects. The former head of the Army Corp of Engineers was forced out by Bush’s administration after he openly criticized the budget cuts. One of the key roles of National Guard troops is to help restore order in times of natural disasters. But many of Louisiana and Mississippi’s National Guard Troops were busy over in Iraq. Some have been recalled but as with almost everything else, it may be too little, too late.

Loyalty can be a double-edged sword. Its an effective weapon in building and keeping a strong team. But if honesty is seen as a lack of loyalty it can have the exact opposite effect. In this scenario, those that are too honest are forced out and replaced by more “loyal” but less experienced candidates. Eventually you end up with an army of yes men. Isn’t this what happened to Colin Powell?

Hurricane Katrina has definitely tested the mettle of President Bush. It is ironic that something so random and “out of our control” could be such a clear indicator of Bush’s careful and deliberate plan. But that is exactly what it has done. I only hope that those most affected by his decisions will keep this in mind the next time they are casting a vote. Blind loyalty can be a fatal flaw in citizens too.

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