Katrina: The Moment of Truth for Bush's Policies
Daniel Vernet writes an analysis of the looming political crisis in Le Monde.
Four years after the September 11th terrorist attacks which dramatically transformed US foreign policy, Hurricane Katrina is another turning point—but will the storm pull the United States in the opposite direction?
It is doubtlessly premature to answer the question but it’s not too soon to ask it. Before September 11, George W. Bush touted a “humble” foreign policy. Afterwards he threw himself into a crusade against Middle Eastern dictators, dragging some of America's allies with him, in the belief that the security of the United States would be best defended by a war on terrorism and its supporters.
The extent of the catastrophe which has struck the South, the high number of victims, the obvious carelessness of public officials, the negligence more often than not due to lack of available means…all of this has shown that Katrina may cause US public opinon and the Administration to rethink priorities and to return to policies which are more focused on domestic problems and the immediate needs of its citizens, including their security.
A very pragmatic debate has begun in the United States. The resources in men and materiel deployed to Iraq and secondarily to Afghanistan and the sums spent to fight an amorphous enemy—wouldn’t they have been better spent to prevent the catastrophe and to provide emergency assistance to the victims? This leads to another question. How does the fighting in Iraq and the attempt to establish democracy there guarantee US security if at the same time the USA is unable to protect Americans against disasters, the consequences of which, though caused by nature, could have been mitigated through human effort? These questions are even more pertinent now that the popularity of President Bush has reached its lowest point in surveys of public opinion.
Doubts on the effectiveness of the war in Iraq and the validity of his preferred strategy are sapping support for his post-September 11 policies. Most Americans no longer believe the President when he brags about his successes in the War on Terror or the progress in stabilizing Iraq. The images which the American public views every night on their TV screens show Bush’s apparent optimism to be false and compel them to acknowledge that the situation is deteriorating. The contradictory statements that Americans hear on the duration of the US troop presence in Iraq are not reassuring. First officials in Washington told them that they are preparing to hand over responsibilities to the Iraqis and will not remain a moment longer than necessary, then they said that talk of a pullout is premature and would only encourage the terrorists.
At the end of August, George W. Bush told the National Guard and their families that As long as I remain president, we will stay, we will fight and we will win the War on Terror. That’s how Bush's Neo-Con pals like it—wartime president talk. The success of the Bush Presidency will depend on his success as Commander-in-Chief, wrote Willam Kristol in the Weekly Standard. The statement reflects more wishful thinking than fact. For even if George W. Bush has adopted Neo-Con language, the disappointment of his Iraq policies have forced him to remain more prudent and less dogmatic and to implement a more pragmatic foreign policy in his second term under Condoleezza Rice.
Bush gave that speech to the National Guard before Hurricane Katrina struck. His words constituted a reply not only to his traditional political opponents who criticize the US military presence in Iraq but to Republican congressmen--representatives in the House and senators—who have begun to show signs of nervousness over the consequences of Bush’s unpopularity in the November 2006 midterm elections. They would like to see at least the start of a pullout from Iraq before facing voters at the polls.
The catastrophe in the South is not going to make things easier. Friends of the president would like to see him show more leadership and to act like a commander-in-chief guiding the emergency response. The dilly-dallying during the first few days, the slow arrival of assistance and the disorganization on the part of public authorities—even if not all of them are federal officials—did not bring credit to the presidency, which seemed to have other priorities.
Everything is pointing towards a reexamination of the relationship between domestic policy and foreign policy but this may not take place before the 2008 presidential election. George Bush is too married to an ideologically messianic and militarily interventionist conception of the War on Terror for him to change course.
But Hurricane Katrina may announce the end to a period of US foreign policy which political scientist Walter Russel Mead calls a blend of Jacksonianism and Wilsonism. That is, an alliance of nationalists who wage war when the vital interests of the United States are threatened and of internationalists who favor the promotion of democracy and American values throughout the world. This bizarre alliance, forged after the September 11th terrorist attacks, has set the tone of US foreign policy over the last few years. Opposed to them are people whom Mead calls the Hamiltonians, who prefer “sweet commerce”, as Montesquieu once said, to temper the power by the United States, and the Jeffersonians, whose priority is to preserve American democracy in a hostile environment without chasing demons around the globe.
Of course, US foreign policy has never quite fit into any of these categories. It has always been the result of competing forces among its institutions. It is even difficult to distinguish a dominating interest.
Comparisons between Bin Laden and Katrina are limited. The leader of al-Qaeda deliberately attacked Americans in the heart of their society; a hurricane is a natural phenomenon with which America is well acquainted, even if the shortcomings of public officials worsened the disaster. However, the former exposed the outer vulnerability of America while the latter displayed its internal fragility.
After having spent a few years fighting the foreign menace, Americans could well be brought, with prompting from other leaders, to turn their attention towards the internal deficiencies exposed by the force of nature in order to escape the image of a superpower with hidden pockets of the Third World at its core. In other words, the Jeffersonians must rise above partisan politics, whether they are traditionally Republicans or Democrats.
There won't be a return to isolationism—impossible in a world of globalization. But there will be a return to Jeffersonian principles: the United States better serves the cause of universal democracy by setting an example at home instead of exporting a model.