The Duck of Minerva

The Duck Quacks at Twilight

Comparing the Obvious

September 5, 2005

From John DiIulio’s famous memo:

[the] remarkably slapdash character of the Office of Homeland Security, with the nine months of arguing that no department was needed, with the sudden, politically timed reversal in June, and with the fact that not even that issue, the most significant reorganization of the federal government since the creation of the Department of Defense, has received more than talking-points-caliber deliberation. This was, in a sense, the administration’s problem in miniature: Ridge was the decent fellow at the top, but nobody spent the time to understand that an EOP [Executive Office of the President] entity without budgetary or statutory authority can’t coordinate over a hundred separate federal units, no matter how personally close to the president its leader is, no matter how morally right it feels the mission is, and no matter how inconvenient the politics of telling certain House Republican leaders we need a big new federal bureaucracy might be.

From the Washington Post (via Kevin Drum):

The roots of last week’s failures will be examined for weeks and months to come, but early assessments point to a troubled Department of Homeland Security that is still in the midst of a bureaucratic transition, a “work in progress,” as Mencer put it. Some current and former officials argued that as it worked to focus on counterterrorism, the department has diminished the government’s ability to respond in a nuts-and-bolts way to disasters in general, and failed to focus enough on threats posed by hurricanes and other natural disasters in particular. From an independent Cabinet-level agency, FEMA has become an underfunded, isolated piece of the vast DHS, yet it is still charged with leading the government’s response to disaster.

“It’s such an irony I hate to say it, but we have less capability today than we did on September 11,” said a veteran FEMA official involved in the hurricane response. “We are so much less than what we were in 2000,” added another senior FEMA official. “We’ve lost a lot of what we were able to do then.” ….

The procedures for what to do when the inevitable disaster hit were also subjected to a bureaucratic overhaul, still unfinished, by the department. Indeed, just last Tuesday, as New Orleans was drowning and DHS officials were still hours away from invoking the department’s highest crisis status for the catastrophe, some department contractors found an important e-mail in their inboxes.

On Capitol Hill, lawmakers from hurricane-prone states fought a rear-guard action against FEMA’s absorption. “What we were afraid of, and what is coming to pass, is that FEMA has basically been destroyed as a coherent, fast-on-its-feet, independent agency,” said Rep. David E. Price (D-N.C.). In creating DHS, “people were thinking about the possibility of terrorism,” said Walter Gillis Peacock, director of the Hazard Reduction and Recovery Center at Texas A&M University. “They weren’t thinking about the reality of a hurricane.” ….

“The federal system that was perfected in the ’90s has been deconstructed,” said Bullock. Citing a study that found that the United States now spends $180 million a year to fend off natural hazards vs. $20 billion annually against terrorism, Bullock said, “FEMA has been marginalized. . . . There is one focus and the focus is on terrorism.”

The White House’s Homeland Security Council developed 15 scenarios for the department to concern itself about — everything from a terrorist dirty-bomb attack to a Baghdad-style improvised explosive device. Only three were not terrorism scenarios: a pandemic flu, a major earthquake and a major hurricane.

By this year, almost three of every four grant dollars appropriated to DHS for first responders went to programs explicitly focused on terrorism, the Government Accountability Office noted in a July report. Out of $3.4 billion in proposed spending for homeland security preparedness grants in the upcoming fiscal year, GAO found, $2.6 billion would be on terrorism-focused programs. At the same time, the budget for much of what remained of FEMA has been cut every year; for the current fiscal year, funding for the core FEMA functions went down to $444 million from $664 million.

New leaders such as Allbaugh were critical of FEMA’s natural disaster focus and lectured senior managers about the need to adjust to the post-9/11 fear of terrorism. So did his friend Michael D. Brown, a lawyer with no previous disaster management experience whom Allbaugh brought in as his deputy and who now has the top FEMA post. “Allbaugh’s quote was ‘You don’t get it,’ ” recalled the senior FEMA official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “If you brought up natural disasters, you were accused of being a pre-9/11 thinker.” The result, the official said, was that “FEMA was being taxed by the department, having money and slots taken. Because we didn’t conform with the mission of the agency.”

Cause and effect? We’ll find out, one hopes, in the coming weeks.

I know a lot of reasonable people think the growing outrage in the leftist blogsphere is overwrough, misdirected, and inappropriate. It may be that the Executive Branch’s failures did not significantly influence the death toll in Louisiana and Mississippi. Republican “talking points” might even be correct that local-level incompetence is the root cause of a good many of the problems with the Federal response. Many of us are angry, frustrated, and horrified in a way that certainly impacts our judgement (I’m sure the same is true of people on the right).

Yet DiIulio’s (hastily retracted) comments sum up why many of us can’t stand the Bush administration and never believed that they were the best people to keep us safe: it’s the incompetence, and the cravenness, stupid! We’ve had that narrative bouncing around in our heads, and in our echo chambers, for quite some time, and each event has made it seem more real, and its implications more dangerous to the health of our Republic.

First we had the selling of the tax cuts through shifting and mutually incompatible rationales.

Next we had the belated push for the Department of Homeland Security, which was driven entirely by political calculation. Indeed, part of the Administration’s strategy involved placing a political poison pill designed for maximum advantage in the 2002 midterm elections: the stripping of civil-service protections. Bush argued he needed such discretion to make sure that incompetent people could be removed from their jobs. It’s a matter of national security he claimed, as he led his party to electoral victory.

I can’t help reflecting for a moment on how laughable Bush’s argument is in light of Michael Brown.

The slapdash formation of the DHS was followed by the Administration’s lack of candor leading up to the Iraq War. As I’ve argued before, this isn’t simply a question of Niger “yellow cake” and model-airplane WMD delivery systems. Even if Bush didn’t lie about any of the actual claims that turned out to be completely false, it was very hard for many of us to take seriously his claims about the imminence and extent of the threat posed by Hussein to the US.

In each case, the results have been bad to disastrous. Planning for the occupation and reconstruction seems to have been based on repeated viewings of Mary Poppins. America’s fiscal health is in terrible shape. And now it looks like the pattern is repeating itself: our warnings have not only been unheeded, they’ve been right.

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Daniel H. Nexon is a Professor at Georgetown University, with a joint appointment in the Department of Government and the School of Foreign Service. His academic work focuses on international-relations theory, power politics, empires and hegemony, and international order. He has also written on the relationship between popular culture and world politics.