The tragedy of Hurricane Katrina is so vast, and the wounds it inflicted on us so fresh, that I am a little more hesitant than some on this page have been to draw any overtly political lessons from it. It is so easy for we Yalies, sitting in our beautifully sunny courtyards, to shake our heads and use the catastrophe as yet another club with which to bludgeon the Bush administration. But for the thousands of Americans who lost loved ones, and the millions who are now refugees in their own country, the crisis is no abstract policy failure but rather a gut-wrenching reality they must grapple with as best they can.
The gravity of the situation in Mississippi, New Orleans and the surrounding affected regions, however, has brought an insidiously deep-rooted problem of American leadership into brutally sharp focus. For the sad truth about Katrina, as many have already observed, is that although the hurricane was unavoidable, the extent of the devastation and misery left in its wake was not. As we now know, politicians at multiple levels were acutely aware that New Orleans was below sea level, vulnerable to a hurricane and inadequately equipped to deal with one. Yet the city’s defenses against calamitous flooding were never sufficiently beefed up. And in the crucial first days after the storm, needed supplies were not delivered and armed troops were not deployed. Meanwhile, the evacuation of New Orleans, from the first initial warnings to the last desperate stragglers clinging onto helicopters, was about as orderly, and as well anticipated, as the evacuation of the Titanic.
Which brings us to the broader problem: the problem of anticipation. Modern-age politicians appear remarkably incapable of anticipating problems before they happen; the best they can do is stage highly televised reactions after the fact. Bush, like Clinton before him, failed to make fighting terrorism a top priority until after Sept. 11, when he suddenly launched a whole war against it. And the War on Terrorism is itself a reactive one. We improved embassy security only after the embassy bombings of 1998 and airline security only after the airline hijackings on 9/11. We made people take off their shoes at metal detectors only after discovering a shoe bomber, and we monitored subway stations only after witnessing the London tube bombings. One cannot help but feel that the effectiveness of these measures would have been enhanced had they been instituted in anticipation of, rather than in response to, the terrorists’ actions.
The reaction to Katrina is only the latest — and most egregious — example of our government’s failure to anticipate. For while the War on Terrorism was being waged in response to the first great national tragedy of the Bush presidency, the disaster-relief programs needed for the second one were being neglected. Had FEMA been a priority for the president, he would not have named as its head Michael Brown, a man whose sole managerial experience came during a stormy tenure as commissioner of the International Arabian Horse Association. Of course, now that this second great national tragedy has happened, Bush is busy reacting: swooping down South in Air Force One to kiss babies and possibly stand on another pile of rubble with a bullhorn. I can’t wait for his next initiative: the War on Hurricanes.
Great leadership is not about scurrying around responding to crises as they pop up unexpectedly. Great leadership is about seeing what the rest of us cannot; it is the impossibly hard task of anticipating long-term threats before they materialize. It is, fundamentally, about leading — not by rushing out in front of a stampeding mob, but by redirecting it toward the right destination. FDR led a stubborn nation slowly but surely through the Lend-Lease program into a war he understood we had to fight. JFK stood up to his generals during the Cuban missile crisis and refused to bomb the offending missile sites, because he saw that an attack could trigger nuclear war. And our founding fathers, perhaps more than anyone, revealed such foresight in their architecture of our Constitution that none of our political crises over the last two centuries proved severe enough to undo their work. President Bush, and the entire generation of American “leadership” of which he is a part, fails miserably by this necessarily lofty standard. After the national debacle of Katrina, as politicians scramble to point fingers and find scapegoats for their bureaucratic dallying and bungling, anyone who uses words like “far-sighted,” “wise,” “strategic” or “intelligent” to describe our current crop of statesmen needs to have his head examined.
In the images of a dilapidated New Orleans, depicting a once vibrant city literally drowning to death, I see a sad metaphor for the state of American leadership. No great country can stay a great country for long if those who run it are not constantly looking down the road for the next great problem, rather than over their shoulders at the last one. Let us hope that if any good comes out of this disaster, it is a renewed desire among talented Yalies to lead as public servants. Surely there can be no more vivid illustration of the importance of good government, and the dangers of a mediocre one.
Roger Low is a junior in Branford College. His column appears on alternate Thursdays.