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Last Updated: Thursday, 15 September 2005, 11:05 GMT 12:05 UK
Viewpoint: The blame game
By Ian Bremner
President of Eurasia Group and Senior Fellow at the World Policy Institute

In the wake of Washington's tragically slow response to Katrina's assault on America's Gulf Coast, there's plenty of blame to go around.

Preparation by local officials for the storm, which we saw brewing on our television screens several days before it made landfall, was shamefully inadequate.

Law enforcement officer carries his weapon on a search and rescue mission in New Orleans
Reports of looting and lawlessness shocked the nation
The federal government's inept reaction is now widely considered a national disgrace.

Public confidence in President Bush, who was still balancing public comments on the storm with references to the drafting of Iraq's constitution two days after Katrina struck, has dropped to an all-time low.

And a substantial portion of the New Orleans police force deserted their posts as armed gangs roamed the city committing violent crimes.

'American tsunami'

To capture the emotions many Americans feel at their government's inability to help the storm's victims and to restore order in Katrina's wake, international media are still searching for the right analogy.

Some have dubbed Katrina the "American tsunami" and questioned how the US government could respond so quickly to a disaster in South Asia and so slowly to one in Louisiana and Mississippi.

Others point to failure to prevent the 11 September attacks and wonder how Washington can restore public faith in government in the face of federal ineptitude.

These commentators also compare the delay before Bush grasped the magnitude of the crisis in New Orleans with the president's perceived paralysis in the hours that followed the 9/11 attacks.

President Bush tours downtown New Orleans
George Bush has been criticised for his handling of the crisis
Still others compare the violence and lawlessness in New Orleans to the disorder on the streets of developing nations, and even failed states. China's People's Daily captured that sentiment in a single memorable sentence: "New Orleans has become Baghdad."

How can the country that engineered the Marshall Plan and that seeks to export its political and economic model to the rest of the world prove so inadequate in the face of a domestic crisis of nearly unprecedented scale?

Cuban civil defence responded vigorously to a recent Category Five hurricane that swept across the island, and not a single citizen lost his life. What's going on here?

Terror threat

A closer look suggests these comparisons make little sense.

If America's response to last December's tsunami, which killed as many as 200,000 people in a dozen countries, seemed faster and more efficient, it's in large part because the Western media arrived there en masse only when the US military did and was restricted to areas that actually received Western help.

Not so in New Orleans, where real-time saturation media coverage began well in advance of federal recovery efforts and provided a much clearer view of both the human tragedy and the horrific scale of the devastation.

The 9/11 analogy is likewise flawed. The American people remain deeply concerned that federal and local authorities remain unable to prevent another terrorist strike that comes without warning.

We Americans believe our problems can be solved, our cities rebuilt, and our homes restored.
The threat from hurricanes is familiar to Americans living along the eastern seaboard and the Gulf Coast.

The horror in New Orleans will continue to unfold as bodies are recovered and the human cost of the disaster becomes clear.

But, while many Americans fear the inadequate federal response reveals vulnerabilities that terrorists can exploit to attack an American city, most believe concrete steps can be taken to ensure that the damage caused by future hurricanes can be far better managed.

Further, the chilling lawlessness in New Orleans has stunned millions of Americans. But comparisons with Baghdad, Port au Prince or Mogadishu are easily dismissed. The federal response was tragically slow, but recovery has now begun in earnest.

National optimism

Most Americans believe the People's Daily comparisons of New Orleans with Baghdad reveal far more about the state of the Chinese media than the state of American society.

There is a domestic analogy that expresses both the embarrassment and disgust many Americans are feeling at the moment and the resilience of public faith in American society: the fiasco that followed the US presidential elections in 2000.

Americans were deeply embarrassed at the time that our government, which seeks to convert much of the world to the American model of political stability, could be paralysed by an inability to process Florida's ballots.

cleanup effort in downtown New Orleans
The reconstruction is well under way
That the Supreme Court essentially decided the outcome along partisan lines was a source of shame and frustration to most Americans, whichever candidate we had initially supported.

Yet most critically, the transition went off without unrest, markets were largely unfazed, and when all was said and done, the vast majority of us accepted the outcome as legitimate.

We Americans believe our problems can be solved, our cities rebuilt, and our homes restored.

Ours is an optimistic nation, in large part because most Americans don't equate the failings of government with the durability of the American ideal.

We believe we can solve our own problems and demand accountability when our government fails to perform as it should. Na´ve, certainly.

But the inefficiencies of the Department of Homeland Security and partisan infighting in Washington will not erode our steadfast insistence on the reconstruction of our nation's devastated Gulf Coast.


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