Monday, September 12, 2005

FEMA DIRECTOR MICHAEL BROWN has resigned. Surprise, surprise.

Meanwhile, everyone is talking about the articles in the current issues of Newsweek and Time about the fatal flaws in George W. Bush's personality and management style that led to the disastrous way Katrina was handled.

It's not that there's much here we didn't already know about Bush, but what Evan Thomas of Newsweek and Mike Allen of Time do is connect the management style to the events surrounding Hurricane Katrina. The mistakes made in the response to Katrina (inexcusable mistakes, since they cost so many lives) are largely a consequence of Bush being Bush.

First: Bush likes to vacation and he doesn't take kindly to cutting a vacation short, even when it's a five-week vacation and it's being cut short by only two days. So when the president's four top advisers realized they could no longer avoid telling Bush he had to fly back to Washington 48 hours ahead of schedule, they practically drew straws to choose the unlucky bearer of the awful news.

Bush was told at 5 a.m. Pacific Coast time [on Tuesday, August 30, after the levees had breached]and immediately decided to cut his vacation short. To his senior advisers, living in the insular presidential bubble, the mere act of lopping off a couple of presidential vacation days counts as a major event.

Second: Bush does not like to be told he is wrong; he does not appreciate or value dissent or disagreement in his staff. Bush has carefully chosen his closest advisers and staff members to echo his views; and when the truth is unpleasant, no one dares tell him.

It's a standing joke among the president's top aides: who gets to deliver the bad news? Warm and hearty in public, Bush can be cold and snappish in private, and aides sometimes cringe before the displeasure of the president of the United States, or, as he is known in West Wing jargon, POTUS. The bad news on this early morning, Tuesday, Aug. 30, some 24 hours after Hurricane Katrina had ripped through New Orleans, was that the president would have to cut short his five-week vacation by a couple of days and return to Washington. ...

The president did not growl this time. He had already decided to return to Washington and hold a meeting of his top advisers on the following day, Wednesday. This would give them a day to get back from their vacations and their staffs to work up some ideas about what to do in the aftermath of the storm. President Bush knew the storm and its consequences had been bad; but he didn't quite realize how bad.

The reality, say several aides who did not wish to be quoted because it might displease the president, did not really sink in until Thursday night. Some White House staffers were watching the evening news and thought the president needed to see the horrific reports coming out of New Orleans. Counselor Bartlett made up a DVD of the newscasts so Bush could see them in their entirety as he flew down to the Gulf Coast the next morning on Air Force One.

How this could be—how the president of the United States could have even less "situational awareness," as they say in the military, than the average American about the worst natural disaster in a century—is one of the more perplexing and troubling chapters in a story that, despite moments of heroism and acts of great generosity, ranks as a national disgrace.

President George W. Bush has always trusted his gut. He prides himself in ignoring the distracting chatter, the caterwauling of the media elites, the Washington political buzz machine. He has boasted that he doesn't read the papers. ...

But it is not clear what President Bush does read or watch, aside from the occasional biography and an hour or two of ESPN here and there. Bush can be petulant about dissent; he equates disagreement with disloyalty. After five years in office, he is surrounded largely by people who agree with him. Bush can ask tough questions, but it's mostly a one-way street. Most presidents keep a devil's advocate around. Lyndon Johnson had George Ball on Vietnam; President Ronald Reagan and Bush's father, George H.W. Bush, grudgingly listened to the arguments of Budget Director Richard Darman, who told them what they didn't wish to hear: that they would have to raise taxes. When Hurricane Katrina struck, it appears there was no one to tell President Bush the plain truth: that the state and local governments had been overwhelmed, that the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) was not up to the job and that the military, the only institution with the resources to cope, couldn't act without a declaration from the president overriding all other authority [emphasis mine].

Of course, the problem with being unaware of a situation's true gravity, because those around you don't want to incur your displeasure by telling you, is that you can pass your ignorance on to others:

... [A] source tells TIME that four days after Katrina struck, Bush himself briefed his father and former President Clinton in a way that left too rosy an impression of the progress made. "It bore no resemblance to what was actually happening," said someone familiar with the presentation.

The only way to avoid that is to have the ability to visualize how events could spiral out of control in a catastrophic event like a hurricane -- or an elective war. And Bush is not able to do that.

The war in Iraq was a failure of intelligence. The government's response to Katrina—like the failure to anticipate that terrorists would fly into buildings on 9/11—was a failure of imagination. On Tuesday, within 24 hours of the storm's arrival, Bush needed to be able to imagine the scenes of disorder and misery that would, two days later, shock him when he watched the evening news. He needed to be able to see that New Orleans would spin into violence and chaos very quickly if the U.S. government did not take charge—and, in effect, send in the cavalry, which in this case probably meant sending in a brigade from a combat outfit, like the 82nd Airborne, based in Fort Bragg, N.C., and prepared to deploy anywhere in the world in 18 hours.
So, when all is said and done, the responsibility for what went so horribly wrong in New Orleans and elsewhere along the Gulf Coast rests most heavily on George W. Bush's shoulders. Yes, state and local authorities dropped the ball; and in some cases (like the police officers who sealed access out of the city) abused their power. But most of that happened because the governor of Louisiana, the mayor of New Orleans, and those under their authority reached the limit of what they could handle on their own. They needed the federal government's intervention to help them; and that help did not come in a timely or an effective manner because the president's top aides did not want to displease or anger their boss, and the boss did not have the imagination or the will to inform himself.

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