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A blog on terrorism, democracy and international politics

Sunday, September 11, 2005

The Quagmire of New Orleans 

In discussing the nature and scale of the New Orleans hurricane disaster on the PWHCE Discussion Group recently, I brought up Cyclone Tracy as the closest analogy in Australian history - although of course considerable geographical and demographic differences separate the two examples. Because of its geography, Darwin was not submerged by a storm surge as New Orleans was. And Darwin's smaller population reduced the potential for mass destruction. The recent flooding in the United States is said to cover a surface area larger than the entire area of the Great Britain.

In considering the US Government's response to this disaster, however, there is a much more recent parallel for Australians. After the recent Southeast Asian tsunami, John Howard immediately made a public statement that firmly expressed Australia's commitment to its neighbours. As Australians watched a panorama of misery and destruction unfold on their doorstep, the country's leader expressed that sense of shock and articulated a response. He replaced a feeling of helpless horror with a plan of action.

This powerful act of leadership shows again how John Howard earns the credibility he has in the eyes of the Australian public. Howard's actions were in stark contrast to Opposition Leader Mark Latham's lack of a response. Although his career was already in terminal decline, Latham precipitated its end by this failure.

For an Opposition Leader to fail to respond to an event in neighbouring countries is one thing, but Bush's failure to respond convincingly and immediately to such an overwhelming disaster in his own country, seriously, perhaps irretrievably damages his credibility.

What makes this particularly difficult to take is that Bush did respond appropriately to the tsunami. Australian and American equipment and personnel were on the scene and making a difference within days. True, in Southeast Asia much of the damage occurred in coastal areas that were easily accessible from higher, unaffected land. In New Orleans, getting access to a particular area can mean travelling several kilometres over water. On the other hand, getting American aid to Southeast Asia did require a crossing of the Pacific Ocean...

Before the tsunami, it was possible to believe that George W Bush's legacy would hinge on strategic gambles such as the war in Iraq.

Bush's challenge to both the statist dictatorships that plague the Middle East and the Jihadi upstarts who seek to establish a new kind of violent, expansionist and repressive dictatorship through terror could end in two ways. If it succeeded, it would show that democracy can work and that the free world is willing to make sacrifices to see it work. Bush would be remembered as the sort of brilliant, unappreciated maverick that many retrospectively see in Ronald Reagan.

If it failed, it would embolden the most nihilistic ideology to stalk the Earth since respective deaths of Hitler and Stalin. Bush would be remembered as an ignorant dilettante whose Middle East adventurism handed power to terrorists.

Which leader is Bush?

It is Bush's response to Hurricane Katrina, as much as the fate of the democratic experiment in Iraq, that will determine whether he is remembered as an unappreciated maverick or an overrated failure. He will need to do some serious work to extricate himself from this quagmire.
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