Sunday, September 4, 2005

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Underreaction and overreaction on Katrina

President Bush appears to have figured out that the federal government's first response to Katrina was pretty pathetic (though not just the feds -- see this Glenn Reynolds post and this jaw-dropping Brad DeLong post), and is now working overtime to correct that first impression, for political reasons if nothing else.

A White House official told me Friday night that, after fumbling around for days, practically every White House agency was getting involved in coping with Katrina. As this New York Times story by Adam Nagourney and Elizabeth Bumiller suggests, Bush has revamped his schedule this month to respond to Katrina.

This readjustment is clearly necessary to a point. But here's the thing -- the criminally slow underreaction from last week could lead to a criminally big overreaction in the next few weeks. As this Knight-Ridder story by Warren Strobel points out, the President has other things on his plate this fall:

Bush and Rice have planned an aggressive fall season of foreign policy, beginning with a summit of 170 world leaders at the United Nations next week. Also on tap are the launch of a public diplomacy initiative to improve the U.S. image in the Muslim world and a possible Rice trip to the Middle East.

Bush had planned to host Chinese President Hu Jintao in Washington this week, but the White House asked that the meeting be rescheduled to take place during Bush's trip to the United Nations, so he could concentrate on hurricane relief.

Add to those things the WTO ministerial in Hong Kong.

Let's be clear -- I'm not saying that the president should not be devoting a healthy fraction of his attention to rebuilding the Gulf Coast. My point is that by screwing up in one direction last week, the administration will now screw up in the other direction for the next several weeks, and I guarantee you that a year from now we'll be bemoaning some foreign policy crisis that would have been defused if everyone had kept their eye on the ball in the present.

UPDATE: Matthew Yglesias makes a similar point.

posted by Dan on 09.04.05 at 11:34 PM


Add to that the fact that he now has two Supreme Court nominations to worry about.

posted by: RFTR on 09.04.05 at 11:34 PM [permalink]

Agreed that they can't seem to walk and chew gum without falling down. This President-stuff is really hard.

posted by: bob mcmanus on 09.04.05 at 11:34 PM [permalink]

This crisis has only called to our attention the moral devastation that has arisen in this nation because authorities who have not suffered with the 'broken people' cannot feel authentic compassion. That a foundation built on the illusion of compassion is simply a shame because compassion, authentic compassion, is always in short supply.

This crisis only reveals what has long been forgotten, that the country is growing corrupt because leaders who have long forgetten to feel ashamed when all the do is make others feel ashamed! I'm staring to attack the 'liberal academy,' thank God that I'm at the University of Chicago.(Yale may have been good too, but I would have not applied because it seemed 'too conservative' at the time)

posted by: michelle on 09.04.05 at 11:34 PM [permalink]

In other owrds, all this administration does is screw up. That is not exactly news.

posted by: eric on 09.04.05 at 11:34 PM [permalink]

Since when did this site start quoting anonymous White House sources? Do you have any concerns about facing potential jail time? Have you contacted an attorney?

posted by: on 09.04.05 at 11:34 PM [permalink]

I've read your blog for a while and was usually impressed with your knowledge and even-handedness in addressing current events. Boy did you blow it this time. Since President Bush took office in 2001, I feel I have been taking a real-life course in civics. Everything we should have learned in school (I'm 56) about the laws governing this country, I'm learing big time now. The Congress controls the money (surprise!) the President has limited powers under our CONSTITUTION. We were designed to be governed by the people and for the people and the power runs up from the people through local government and ultimately to ELECTED officials. You have obviously jumped to the head of the line, given our President kingly powers and absolved the people and their LOCAL governments of any responsibility. Way to go! Now, take a deep breath, get back on the horse, mention posse comitatus, mention the report NEW ORLEANS issued last year that 125,000 people in that city have no means of transportation, mention NEW ORLEANS emergency plan for commandeering public/private vehicles (like all those school busses) and evacuating the city. Now, when mention of FEDERAL cutting of funds for flood control come up, mention all the cuts going back over previous administrations. Then when you mention the past FEMA director assisting the governor now, mention his previous recommendations that places like NO NOT be re-built. Carry on!

posted by: judith miley on 09.04.05 at 11:34 PM [permalink]

judith - I don't think Mr. Drezner is saying that the mayor and governor are entirely without blame. But to assert that the President, who did appoint the current hapless FEMA director and who did shift priorities almost entirely from disaster preparedness to terrorism, is entirely without blame is an equally narrow-minded way of looking at things.

DHS's National Reponse Plan, Blanco's Aug 26th declaration of emergency and Bush's response the next day gave the federal government all the authority they needed to do whatever they wanted in terms of preparation, evacuation and relief.

On a purely political level, one of the reasons for the coming over-response that Mr. Drezner talks about (tho I'm not sure what constitutes an over-response in this situation, even if I see his point about the importance of these foreign policy events) was the devastating political image of Bush playing guitar while New Orleans flooded, among other things. It was that he didn't display any of the take-charge bravado that many saw him display after 9/11. Now he has to overcompensate for those early mistakes in the hope that people will forget everything that went before.

Let me state again, just to be clear: Blame in this situation is not a zero-sum game, no matter how many on the left and the right might want to make it so.

posted by: NYCmoderate on 09.04.05 at 11:34 PM [permalink]

Dan is not usually so opaque in his writing on public affairs. In this post he has left me, at least, in some doubt as to what he is talking about.

Granted that the Bush administration, its instincts thoroughly grounded in the realities of campaign politics, is apt (with a few exceptions) to focus on issues that are in the news and to neglect others. I don't see that Katrina changes that very much. Granted also that "....a year from now we'll be bemoaning some foreign policy crisis that would have been defused now if everyone had kept their eye on the ball right now," something that could be said at any time during any administration.

Granting all that, is Sec. Rice's trip to the Middle East really likely to require sustained Presidential involvement? Will the State Department's public diplomacy initiative, which according to one report ( appears to consist primarily of a different spin on 9/11 commemorations and rapid response teams to shoot down bad stories on al Jazeera, not prosper without White House attention? Isn't the WTO ministerial in Hong Kong pretty much on the rocks anyway -- it having been scheduled to nail down a framework for an agreement to the Doha round of trade liberalization talks, which framework is not close to being agreed to?

I'd agree, if this is Dan's point, that foreign policy is likely to suffer if the Secretary of State continues to be conscripted for duty as a White House spokesman to African-Americans. Otherwise, the things from which Katrina might be a distraction break down to things that weren't going to happen anyway (Social Security reform, a Doha agreement), things that shouldn't happen (repeal of the estate tax), and things that should proceed in much the same way they would have without the hurricane (Supreme Court nominations, the public diplomacy fizzle).

Dan doesn't mention the one policy area in which Katrina will have the biggest impact. It is Iraq. Timeline or no timeline, after Katrina the clock is ticking pretty loudly on this project. Public suppport for operations costing billions of borrowed money each month and working toward a conclusion that is not in sight is likely to be the most prominent political casualty of Katrina.

posted by: Zathras on 09.04.05 at 11:34 PM [permalink]

Actually, I think Dan has been pretty clear here. After the utter disaster, criminal negligence and dereliction of duty of this past week, the administration will be falling over themselves to be seen to be doing something, anything related to hurricane relief, even if that takes Condolezza Rice from her regular job (leaving aside her shopping expeditions to Ferragamo) to tour Mobile.
While I think they're still going to undershoot in terms of material resources, what matters to the Bush Administration is and always has been PR, and you get PR with deploying executive resources faster than you get it with material resources. As those executive resources, such as Rumsfeld and Rice, join in the rush to undo the PR damage, foreign policy now goes on autopilot.

posted by: Daniel on 09.04.05 at 11:34 PM [permalink]

" if everyone had kept their eye on the ball right now."

Does that include the media? Pundits? Commenters on blogs?

This deserves the Dr. Evil response: Riiight.

posted by: lancer on 09.04.05 at 11:34 PM [permalink]

And Dan D. steps to plate (finally) on the Katrina mess, takes a long hard look at the pitch, he swings

. . . . and misses.

Yes my friend, rotting bodies in the street and 10,000 dead pales in comparison to that diplomatic coup Bush was no doubt going to whip up this fall.

posted by: Andrew on 09.04.05 at 11:34 PM [permalink]

Take the "national security" seriously--as a descriptor, as a priority.
How is it most likely to be breached, say in a way that costs American lives?
By a terrorist attack in or near a major American city.
What does the New Orleans fiasco reveal about our preparations, four years after, for such an attack?
Well, then, if Bush turns inward and reforms those preparations for the better, isn't he belatedly doing what best serves our national security interests? (And what difference does it make that the politicians in Washington can point to a piece of papar that says for the first 72 hours, it's all the other guys' fault?) Could any image manufacture in the Middle East or deals with China be more important than getting our disaster responses in order? How can one OVERreact to the alarming lessons of this disastrous response to a predictable disaster? Katrina, unlike bin Laden's minions, kindly let us know she was coming days ahead of time.

posted by: Scared on 09.04.05 at 11:34 PM [permalink]

Power in the internationall sphere is the result of a strong and healthy nation. Surely the more important impact this cluster **** will have is blowing open the whited sepulchre that is neoliberal/neoconservative America. Already unable to control events in Iraq and Afghanistan (August was 3rd highest month for casualties in Iraq, Afghanistan appears to be heating up again) the United States has shown itself unable to prepare for an entirely unpredictable disaster or to respond effectively to that disaster on its own territory.

The foreign press -- even the BBC -- is reporting the savagery foreign tourists experience in New Orleans, the German press has clued in to the Potemkin nature of Bush photo ops in the Gulf. These and other reports from the Katrina fall out will be noted by the Chinese, the Europeans, the Islamicists. They will be at the back of their diplomats minds when negotiated with the "world's only remaining superpower".

posted by: Mitchell Young on 09.04.05 at 11:34 PM [permalink]

An entire American city -- one that occupies a strategically and economically important location -- has been evacuated, and you're worried about overreaction? Are you getting ready to go 0-2 on hurricane posts?

posted by: Doug on 09.04.05 at 11:34 PM [permalink]

for an entirely unpredictable disaste

meant entirely *predictable*!

posted by: Mitchell Young on 09.04.05 at 11:34 PM [permalink]

This has been a colossal failure of government- like 9/11 government agencies could not work together and people died- far more on the Gulf Coast than in NYC. This is a bigger disgrace than My Lai. All levels of government are to blame. We need a special prosecutor to look into the guilt of the governor, Brown and Chertoff. All media should stop accepting anything said by politicians without confirmation. They are going to be lying like rugs.
Yes, they may try to distract us with foreign policy spectaculars but they can't do anything right- look how Mr. Bremer made a bad situation 50 times worse in Iraq.
What we most need is for Congress to assert some authority.

posted by: anciano on 09.04.05 at 11:34 PM [permalink]

>...criminally big overreaction...

Overreaction? How the hell can you have an

What would make a criminally small overreaction?

Bush's behavior as well has the rest of the Federal
government WAS, and IS criminal.

As for the Local and State departments, I find it
interesting that those that want to place the blame
on them never explain with what resources they were
suppose to use and how those great resources they had
would have had at their command would have stopped
this crisis in it's tracks if only Local and State
reacted fast enough.

Like in a war the first line of defense is the Local
agencies and they were over-run by the enemy. The
second line of defense was the State and it was calling
for help from the Federal government before the first
line was over-run. The Federal government is the last
line of defense with it's vast array of resources and
it was slow to response to the States requests for help.

Since the Fed's have the largest amount of resources it
means they, the Federal government, has to start
moving it's resources earlier than State or Local
forces simply because of it's huge size.

The Federals are suppose to have everything set up
so when a State request is made help can truly be
on the way at the proper time.

Bush failed miserably in this. In fact, Bush had
the easiest job of all involved. He was to make sure
that communications between Federal, State, and Local
departments were up, running, and solid. He should
have had someone on the ground to send back information
to the proper Federal depatments as to what could be
done to help increase the power of the State and Local
officals. In this Bush failed too. All good leaders
can 'see' a pattern of possible disaster before it
happens. Bush is a wait and see what happens type
of person. He can not and never will be able to get
ahead on any crisis.

Having someone like that in control of vast resources
means those resources will never be used in an effective
way. Your asking for a disaster on a grand scale.

Which you got.....

Want some friendly advice? Get rid of Bush.

posted by: James on 09.04.05 at 11:34 PM [permalink]

Your assessment is exactly right. It also shows you drank the Kool-aid.
When you run your Presidency around the code word loyalty you do not have anyone with the authority to just "act". Everything is the party line from the wWhite House Politburo headed by Karl Rove. If you doubt it how could Bush have declared it was a federal disaster on Aug 26th then have no one act. Yet Rehnquist dies offically on Sat 3 Aug at night and less than 36 hours later we have a full court White House live briefing at 8 AM Mon 5 Aug announcing that a guy who isn't even on the Court is going to be the Chief Justice.(let us not even begin to discuss how up yours this is and how it distracts from the Gulf Coast disaster as Congress returns to operation).

this guy just does not care about anybody but those who annointed or are clan. Al_Sistani clan secular and religious leader has nothing on Bush II

posted by: Robert M on 09.04.05 at 11:34 PM [permalink]

Wow, this is about the dumbest Drezner post I've ever read. Bush rescheduled a meeting with Hu Jintao to a couple of days later, and now Drezner thinks it's inevitable that there will be some huge foreign policy screw up next year??? Where's the evidence that there will be "a criminally big overreaction in the next few weeks"? And can Drezner please tell us how much of a reaction over the next few weeks will be a "criminally big overreaction"?

Is this really what professors at the University of Chicago think??? Utterly pathetic.

posted by: A.S. on 09.04.05 at 11:34 PM [permalink]

This Kossack mentality is tiresome.

State and local government(meaning the Governor and the Mayor)have full responsibility to secure and protect their populace (meaning those citizens who reside in respective States)
The Governor has authority over the President, not the other way around for the simple purpose of preventing Kossacks from instigating a coop d'tat.

You'll falsely declare the President Dictator only to demand in a moment of crisis he behave as a Dictator.


posted by: syn on 09.04.05 at 11:34 PM [permalink]

I look at the time line posted at CNN and be damned if I can tell anything that Bush failed to do. Who can show me when the "Magic" is supposed to happen?

The single biggest failure of this entire mess was the inability of the mayor to commandeer the buses while he still had time to begin the evacuation en masse. He compounded that by ordering people to the Superdome with zero plan to support them. The buses could have hauled people one way and brought in supplies on the return trip.

You are blaming Bush for the Mayor's failure to act in his own and his city's best interests. Forget the state and feds, the city needed to get those people out! Was Bush supposed to drive the friggin' buses too?

posted by: Ed Poinsett on 09.04.05 at 11:34 PM [permalink]

The Federals are suppose to have everything set up so when a State request is made help can truly be on the way at the proper time.

...the federal plan advises state and local emergency managers not to expect federal aid for 72 to 96 hours, and base their own preparedness efforts on the need to be self-sufficient for at least that period.

posted by: Reid on 09.04.05 at 11:34 PM [permalink]

Daniel Drezner is entirely correct. Those who don't understand what he just said never will BECAUSE THEY DON'T WANT TO UNDERSTAND THIS PARTICULAR MESSAGE. Anything which inhibits their own partisan message is not just bad, but incomprehensible for them.

"... what matters to the Bush Administration is and always has been PR, and you get PR with deploying executive resources faster than you get it with material resources. As those executive resources, such as Rumsfeld and Rice, join in the rush to undo the PR damage, foreign policy now goes on autopilot.
posted by: Tom Holsinger on 09.04.05 at 11:34 PM [permalink]

I guess I'm confused about the critism of FEMA? Didn't they do a great job last year with three hurricanes in Florida? The difference is working with a capable governor.

posted by: Jana on 09.04.05 at 11:34 PM [permalink]

This was just another predictable anti-Bush rant. Those on the left declined Civics class and enrolled in primal scream therapy back in the 60s. They didn't learn shit then and they don't know shit now.

posted by: Xixi on 09.04.05 at 11:34 PM [permalink]

I recommend Governor Barbour of Mississippi as fully qualified to be the next President of the United States.

His leadership meant that even though Mississippi was hit harder by Katrini than was Louisiana, its people have fared much better.

The ideal matchup in 2008 would be Gov. Barbour facing off against Louisiana Gov "Blank stare" Blanco.

posted by: Mark on 09.04.05 at 11:34 PM [permalink]

Note that irresponsible posturing by Democratic Party officials and senior elected Democratic office-holders, concerning the effects of Hurricane Katrina plus many other issues, forces the Bush administration into the self-protective, public relations intensive behavior it is exhibiting.

Were the Democrats more responsible, there is a fair chance that the Bush administration would be too.

Just as bad money drives out good, irresponsible behavior by the oppostion drives out responsible behavior by the incumbent administration.

Until the public starts punishing elected officials and candidates for irresponsible behavior, irresponsible behavior will continue.

posted by: Tom Holsinger on 09.04.05 at 11:34 PM [permalink]

You people just don't get it. No one gives a shit about your crabbed constitutional interpretations that were discredited in the 1930s. No one gives a shit about the incompetence of local governments, which is hardly news. Disaster relief is considered by the vast majority of American people to be a federal responsibility. And nothing you say can change this.

posted by: Firebug on 09.04.05 at 11:34 PM [permalink]

Beware poosts that begin "You people just don't get it."

posted by: Mark on 09.04.05 at 11:34 PM [permalink]

Problem is, Firebug is right about the politics, if not about the law or the ethics of the situation.

If I remembe, there was a certain mount of hooting in the right blogosphere about UN failures to get right on the tsunmai rescue. Are these same voices giving FEMA grief?

More important question, is there an institutional problem with agencies that are tasked to give relief in emergency situations?

posted by: Appalled Moderate on 09.04.05 at 11:34 PM [permalink]

Beware posts from people who can't spell or type.

posted by: RZ on 09.04.05 at 11:34 PM [permalink]

Much of the grumbling is coming from the Republican base, many of whom held their noses and voted for Bush because there was no alternative.

(I held my nose and voted for no one.)

The diehard idealogues will support Bush no matter how incompetent he is, but the rest of the GOP is getting restive.

Putting a half-wit hack horse show lawyer in charge of FEMA is only the latest atrocity.

If the Dems do not win big in 2006 and 2008 they should disband the party and start again.

posted by: save_the_rustbelt on 09.04.05 at 11:34 PM [permalink]


Even cronies and amateurs can do a credible job when the pressure is on from the highest levels and the incentives are clear ... the summer and fall before an election in a crucial swing state where the Crony-in-chief's brother is governor. Plenty of pre-positioning, readiness, coordination, and no limits on supply then. No blaming of victims.

Nell L.

posted by: somedude on 09.04.05 at 11:34 PM [permalink]

Since the local government failed to follow their own evacuation plan, and the Governor had to be essentially ordered by the President to declare a mandatory evacuation, and the fact that the mayor had to be ordered by the Governor to declare said evacuation, and, said mayor knew that his city was much more dependent upon public transportation that the average city, yet failed to secure transportation for those individuals, and the fact the existing plan anticipated a 72-96 hour window for the federal government to respond, how is this Bush's fault again?

posted by: Don Mynack on 09.04.05 at 11:34 PM [permalink]

Drezner thinks it's inevitable that there will be some huge foreign policy screw up next year

Well, based on the GWB record so far that's probably a correct prediction. It just doesn't have anything to do with hurricanes.

posted by: Doug on 09.04.05 at 11:34 PM [permalink]

Uh-oh, Barbour just blasted FEMA and the federal response. Looks like Mark isn't up on the latest Party Line.

posted by: Doug on 09.04.05 at 11:34 PM [permalink]

The Right-Wing Cult of Wealthy Individuals (aka the Republican Party) has told Al-Queda that the United States is not prepared to protect MOST Americans, if attacked.

posted by: NeoDude on 09.04.05 at 11:34 PM [permalink]

Since when does the Mayor of any city have the authority to commander private buses?

Would any of you claiming that the major should have done this show me the evidence that he can legally do this.

posted by: spencer on 09.04.05 at 11:34 PM [permalink]

Population of the City of New Orleans 462,269 (US Census Bureau) plus say 20,000 tourists= 482,000
8/29 Katrina makes landfall
8/30 Pumps and levee repair efforts fail (major flooding commences- Day F)
US military starts to move ships/helicopters to area at request of FEMA
8/31 Evacuations begin (F+1)
9/6 (F+7) Estimated fewer than 10,000 residents remain in NO. No other nation in the world could accomplish this. Pat yourselves on the back.

posted by: Thomas Esmond Knox on 09.04.05 at 11:34 PM [permalink]

Ed Poinsett and Don Mynack make good points. A lot of people (mainly on the left) seem to be very unclear on exactly who is responsible for what, who has the authority to do what, and the reasons things are set up that way (free clue: they're good reasons).

In a nutshell: the President is not an absolute monarch, State governments can and do say 'no' to the Federal government, and the federal government is not the responsible party when state or city governments screw up.

That the voters of New Orleans someone in charge who didn't bother to follow NO's disaster plans is not Bush's fault. Nor is it Bush's fault that it took FEMA a few days to get moving- anyone who remembers FEMA's response time to the various hurricanes in Florida last decade will recognize that this is about as good of a job as FEMA has ever done.

What I don't understand is why so many people didn't prepare despite having days of warning. Out here on the west coast, we'd give a hell of a lot for a hour's notice that an earthquake was coming. People in New Orleans had days to get out of a coastal city that was below sea level and protected by levees that were only expected to withstand a class-3 hurricane. WTF were they thinking???

posted by: rosignol on 09.04.05 at 11:34 PM [permalink]


Amend third paragraph: "That the voters of New Orleans put someone in charge...

preview is your friend.

posted by: rosignol on 09.04.05 at 11:34 PM [permalink]

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