In the past 15 years, America has fought wars in Iraq (twice), Yugoslavia (twice) and Afghanistan. We’ve declared war on poverty and war on drugs. But unfortunately for George W. Bush’s falling approval ratings, it’s impossible to declare war against nature.
Bush’s presidency has thrived on conflict, both domestic and international. As he never tires of reminding the American public, Bush is “the war president.” He fought against Al Gore in the Supreme Court for his right to assume the presidency, and has been in “battle mode” ever since. He argued with China over a downed spy plane, then led America into wars against Afghanistan and Iraq. He’s been so busy fighting wars, or disseminating “evidence” in support of wars, or prematurely declaring the end of wars, that domestic policy hasn’t been much of a focus of his administration. Of course, the American public had, up until Katrina, been so preoccupied with either the so-called “culture wars” or the real, military wars that we didn’t pay much attention to domestic policy, either.
When something goes wrong in America, Bush seems to look for someone to attack. Witness his “quick, decisive action” after Sept. 11 — there were boots on the ground in Afghanistan in no time. On the domestic front, however, it took Bush almost a year and a half to endorse the 9/11 Commission. By the time the commission began meeting, we were already ramping up for yet another war.
In 2003, with Osama bin Laden still in hiding and the Taliban defeated, Bush still had some problems to solve. The war in Afghanistan had dealt a blow to terrorism, but al Qaeda was still a threat and global terrorism still a problem. So Bush looked for someone else to attack, and found a convenient target in Iraq. As we invaded in March 2003, the culture of conflict marched on.
On the day that Katrina struck, something went wrong in America. The natural disaster was no one’s fault, but the nonexistent preparation and disastrous response were the fault of a conflict-obsessed administration. Bush couldn’t attack anyone after Katrina hit. He couldn’t send troops to another country and set things “right.” There was no foreign enemy to “bring it on.” And so he sat in Texas, confused, at a loss. Just like after 9/11, Bush’s domestic response to a national tragedy was unconscionably slow. But this time, there was no rapid foreign response to conceal the shortcoming; this time, there was no conflict to be had.
Bush’s conflict-oriented foreign and domestic policy holds potentially grave consequences for America. His emphasis on discord has poisoned the political environment in this country and our relationships with the rest of the world. No longer do we reach consensus in a bipartisan environment — rather, Democrats and Republicans are caught up in a never-ending duel. No longer does our country seek to work with our allies in a spirit of mutual agreement — rather, we seek to antagonize friend and foe alike.
Katrina is a disaster that defies conflict. A tragedy of this magnitude demands consensus, not disagreement. It demands a dedication to reconstruction and reconciliation, not a determination to attack the perpetrators of tragedy. The hurricane itself was a tragedy without perpetrators. The failed cleanup was a tragedy of a greater scale, perpetrated by this administration’s inability to operate effectively in the absence of something to call the enemy.
Bush has failed the most important test of his second term thus far. When nature strikes, we must build, not destroy. We must strive for unification, not division. In George W. Bush’s America, consensus has become a near-anachronism, replaced by a political landscape that prizes unresolved disagreement. The coming months and years offer an opportunity to right the wrongs of a disaster not at the barrel of a gun, but through skilled domestic planning. As of now, though, Bush’s legacy is a culture of conflict — and unless he moves quickly and decisively, it will stay that way.
Xan White is a freshman in Calhoun College.