An Amazed World Watches a Superpower’s Sluggish Response to Disaster at Home
Five days after Hurricane Katrina devastated three Gulf states of the United States leaving thousands dead and one million homeless and in deep distress, President George W. Bush flew in. The horrifying spectacles of suffering and the immensity of the calamity were far worse than he imagined. The US president witnessed needs of Third World proportions and a state of anarchy, with armed gangs looting, robbing and raping refugees, that recalled the streets of Somalia. Patients were dying unattended in the hospitals where even medicines had been stolen in violent attacks.
One angry charge he heard repeatedly was that the relief effort – which he admitted was “unacceptable” – was under-sourced because of Iraq.
He replied sharply: “The war in Iraq does not affect the relief effort.”
Still echoing around America was the weeping, broken voice of New Orleans mayor Ray Nagin who said over radio: “They don’t have a clue about what is going on. Don’t tell me they’ve sent 40,000 troops. They`re not here.” More than 20,000 stranded in the Superdome chanted: “Help! And “Water!” A desperate elderly man asked angrily why the great America which sent its army, air force and navy to Iraq has no troops for New Orleans. “Come on, Bush,” he said, “You can do better.”
A few hours later, as president Bush began trying to do better. As he toured some of the ravaged towns of Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana, the first eight emergency convoys, heavily armed, began rolling into New Orleans with food and water, along with sizeable contingents of National Guards and airlifted supplies. Police and guardsmen patrolled the down with drawn guns and orders to shoot to kill.
At the same time, big fires blazed in the heart of the city’s financial district with no water available to extinguish them.
The hurricane victims were not alone in asking how the same America which took on a war on global terror and two foreign conflicts simultaneously fell so short in coping with its own dire disaster. This question will be engraved on the historical memory of the United States and the world – all because the US president, the commander in chief, took five days to assume command and galvanize the White House staff, the branches of his government and military and police forces for a mighty effort to aid three important states of the Union, which had suffered an indescribable human disaster.
Two days after it broke, he did interrupt his vacation – but only to fly over the distressed region, never to touch down. He then stood in the White House flanked by two former presidents Bush and Clinton and, arguably the worst speech he ever made, asked Katrina victims to exercise patience.
The effect of this lapse of authority, which came for all the world to see, was predictably demoralizing. National Guard officers, some of whom had served in Iraq, refused to patrol the disaster zones “because there are gunmen on the streets.” The Louisiana police chief admitted many of his men were resigning. They had lost everything to the hurricane and now they were being shot at.
America showed the world a face it had never seen before. Many helping hands around the world were extended to a nation that has been generous to others in distress. But, even after Bush gets his act together, which will no doubt happen, America’s moment of lapsed leadership put unhealthy ideas in the heads of its enemies and non-friends. The impact on America’s world standing, on the Iraq War and the situation in the Middle East will be far-reaching and damaging.
There are already signs of domestic pressure on the Bush administration to pull forces out of Iraq and bring them home; America’s mega-emergency is deemed more urgent than installing democracy in Iraq. But the withdrawal of even a small number of US troops from Iraq will be seen by America’s foes in the Arab Middle East as a great victory and leave allied governments vulnerable as never before.
The men of terror, including al Qaeda, may be presumed to have been glued to their television screens like the rest of the world. But they will be drawing their own conclusions. The scenes in New Orleans will have strengthened their basic assumption that the strategy which proved itself in the Sept 11 suicide attacks four years ago does not require great armies or unconventional weapons. To defeat America, the terrorists need only locate its Achilles heel, places where the largest number of civilians going about their daily lives can be harmed, like high-rise buildings of New York, as in Britain, the underground trains of London. The terrible scenes in New Orleans will have given them plenty of food for thought.