Revisiting Katrina

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Wednesday, August 20, 2008; 12:20 PM

For many Americans, Hurricane Katrina was the final straw. The sheer incompetence of the administration's response to a crisis -- and President's Bush's personal inability to recognize the scope of the suffering -- sent Bush's job-approval rating into a decline from which it has never recovered.

Two weeks after broken levees left New Orleans full of water but empty of people, Bush famously flew in for a theatrical address from a brightly lit but abandoned Jackson Square, and promised to rebuild the city and the region. "We will do what it takes, we will stay as long as it takes, to help citizens rebuild their communities and their lives," he said at the time.

Bush returns to New Orleans today, three years later, unable to declare success. Instead, according to the text of his speech released by the White House yesterday, he will repeatedly emphasize "hopeful signs of progress."

There has been progress, of course, but in the view of the residents of New Orleans, not nearly enough.

A recent Kaiser Family Foundation poll found that "fully half of those living in the parish say they are either dissatisfied (41 percent) or angry (11 percent) with the amount of progress that has been made. . . .

"They feel ignored by policymakers in Washington, underwhelmed by the financial help provided by the federal government, and forgotten by their fellow Americans."

Richard Lardner writes for the Associated Press: "Bush travels to New Orleans and nearby Gulfport, Miss., on Wednesday after appearing at a Veterans of Foreign Wars convention in Orlando, Fla.. . . .

"'There is still a lot of work to do before this city is fully recovered,' Bush says. 'And for people who are still hurting and not yet back in their homes, a brighter day might seem impossible. Yet a brighter day is coming and it is heralded by hopeful signs of progress.'"

But Lardner writes that nothing Bush has done has "erased the image of a leader who failed to react at a critical moment.

"'It's defined him a great deal in the public's mind,' said Thomas Mann, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank.

"'That, along with the war in Iraq, are really the pivotal events in his political demise,' Mann said. 'First impressions have ways of becoming lasting ones and certainly that was the case with Katrina.'

"Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., said in an interview with The Associated Press that the recovery in New Orleans was far from complete and key projects won't be finished without more federal money.

"'It's not the quantity of the visits; it's the quality of the visits,' Landrieu said of Bush's upcoming stop."

Julie Mason writes in the Houston Chronicle: "Bush was on vacation at his Texas retreat when the devastating storm struck the Gulf Coast in 2005. His administration's slow reaction and spotty recovery efforts proved a durable political blight on his presidency. . . .

"[W]ith the Aug. 29 anniversary of Katrina's landfall approaching, regions of the Gulf Coast, and especially parts of New Orleans, are still suffering the effects of the storm. More than 1,800 people were killed, and some $81 billion in property was damaged or destroyed. . . .

"Three years later, 'we see hopeful signs of progress,' Bush will say, according to his speech text. It's a phrase he will repeat seven times in his address, to describe reopened restaurants, improving health care, public education and crime-fighting."

"'I see more cranes in the sky in Austin right now than I do in New Orleans,' said Tracie L. Washington, an attorney and co-director of the Louisiana Justice Institute in New Orleans.

"Washington, whose parents fled the storm in New Orleans and now live in Houston, said her family's old neighborhood of Chantilly has never come back. In her work, Washington said she frequently deals with elderly residents victimized by unscrupulous contractors.

"'I would say this to the president, that I evacuated and went to Beaumont and then to Austin, but I returned home to New Orleans because I believed the promises he made from Jackson Square,' Washington said. 'So far, it still hasn't happened.'"

Jan Moller writes in the New Orleans Times-Picayune: "It will be the president's 13th visit to the New Orleans area since it was devastated by the storm on Aug. 29, 2005, and possibly the last before he turns over the White House to a successor on Jan. 20. . . .

"'The story of your recovery is impressive,' according to an advance copy of Bush's speech made available late Tuesday. 'And it is the same story we see playing out across the Gulf Coast. Homes, businesses and schools are being rebuilt. Levees are being repaired. Families and communities are being reconnected. And from Biloxi to Beaumont, hope is being restored.'

"But five months to the day before his successor will be sworn in, Bush still has several items of unfinished business in a region where many residents remain disappointed with the slow and uneven pace of the recovery."

James Gerstenzang blogs for the Los Angeles Times about why the speech was released a day early: "White House officials want the focus of the day to be the formal remarks Bush is delivering to the veterans and the message he will be sending to Russia about Georgia.

"At the same time, they don't want to suggest that Bush is giving the brush-off to New Orleans and other Gulf Coast regions. . . .

"So, in a step that avoids putting out dueling messages, the White House, which rarely lifts the curtain on Bush speeches, let alone does so 24 hours in advance, took the unusual step of distributing this evening a text of the remarks he is planning to give in New Orleans after the Orlando speech to the VFW.

"It didn't have much to worry about.

"The speech in New Orleans is largely a recitation of the 'a-sunnier-day-is-coming' remarks Bush has delivered in the past along the Gulf Coast. Indeed, he says 'a brighter day is coming,' as he touts progress in restoring education and building housing and proclaims 'hopeful signs of progress in efforts to reduce crime.'"

Gerstenzang appends the full text of the speech to his post.

Poke Poke Poke the Bear

Without any concrete way to punish Russian leaders for their incursion into Georgia, Bush seems to have settled on another tactic: Annoy the hell out of them.

Karen DeYoung writes in The Washington Post: "NATO allies said Tuesday that there will be no 'business as usual' with Russia until its troops withdraw from all parts of Georgia, but Moscow's refusal to bend to the West's political will left the alliance with few options for punishment. . . .

"The Russians themselves appeared to ridicule the declaration. While Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told reporters the document was a 'clear indication of NATO's interest and NATO's concern,' Dmitry Rogozin, Russia's envoy to the alliance, assessed in his own news conference that 'the mountain gave birth to a mouse.'"

Helene Cooper writes in the New York Times: "European officials said they were not about to get into a military confrontation with Russia over Georgia. That is why European countries have blocked the Bush administration's efforts to bring Georgia and Ukraine into the alliance, said a senior European diplomat involved in the NATO emergency meeting on Tuesday.

"While the NATO statement did promise to consider the idea of beginning Georgia's accession to NATO in December, the diplomat said that in reality, the prospects were virtually nil. 'It's impossible,' he said, speaking on the condition of anonymity under normal diplomatic procedure. . . .

"Tuesday's emergency session brought the fractures in NATO into sharp relief. Even before the meeting started, the French, Germans and even the British were saying that they had no intention of seeking to isolate Russia. 'We asked others not to stop relations between NATO and Russia,' Bernard Kouchner, the French foreign minister, said in an interview. 'We have to talk to them, but if they don't implement their promises, we have to react and stand up strongly.'

"Still, he said: 'We need firmness, not threats. We must not threaten them, because it will not work. Because everyone knows we are not going to war.'

"Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice gave a long discourse about not letting Russia off the hook. 'If we do, it will come back to haunt us,' Ms. Rice said, according to the official.

"But that was as far as she went, he said. 'Rhetorically, it was very good,' he said, 'but it became clear that she does not want to start a cold war either.' He added that the Americans knew that with the exception of Poland, the Czech Republic and the Baltics, Europe was resisting even a slight increase in the pressure on Russia."

So what can Bush do? Well, let's start on the Polish front.

Vanessa Gera and Monika Scislowska write for the Associated Press: "Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and her Polish counterpart signed a deal Wednesday to build a U.S. missile defense base in Poland, an agreement that prompted an infuriated Russia to warn of a possible attack against the former Soviet satellite.

"The deal to install 10 U.S. interceptor missiles just 115 miles from Russia's westernmost frontier also has strained relations between Moscow and the West, ties that already troubled by Russia's invasion of its former Soviet neighbor, U.S. ally Georgia, earlier this month.

"Rice and Polish Foreign Minister Radek Sikorski signed the deal Wednesday morning.

"'It is an agreement which will help us to respond to the threats of the 21st century,' she said afterward¿

"After Warsaw and Washington announced the agreement on the deal last week, top Russian Gen. Anatoly Nogovitsyn warned that Poland is risking attack, and possibly a nuclear one, by deploying the American missile defense system, Russia's Interfax news agency reported. . . .

"Poland and the United States spent a year and a half negotiating, and talks recently had snagged on Poland's demands that the U.S. bolster Polish security with Patriot missiles in exchange for hosting the missile defense base.

"Washington agreed to do so last week, as Poland invoked the Georgia conflict to strengthen its case.

"The Patriots are meant to protect Poland from short-range missiles from neighbors -- such as Russia."

Jan Cienski and Daniel Dombey write in the Financial Times that by agreeing to supply the Patriot missiles, "the US has made an unambiguous statement of support for Poland amid Russia's new assertiveness. US officials argue that they had already done all they could to meet Russian concerns short of ditching the missile defence plan, with no noticeable reduction in the intensity of Kremlin rhetoric."

And then: Maybe send in the Navy?

Nancy A. Youssef reported last night for McClatchy Newspapers: "The Bush White House and the Pentagon are at odds over whether to station a Navy ship in the Black Sea to demonstrate U.S. support for the embattled Georgian military and government, two defense officials told McClatchy Tuesday.

"The White House thinks that deploying a vessel such as the hospital ship USNS Comfort would showcase the Bush administration's support for Georgia and signal U.S. concern that Russia has sparked a humanitarian crisis in Georgia.

"The Pentagon officials, who both spoke only on the condition of anonymity because they weren't authorized to discuss internal policy deliberations, said the move is unnecessary. . . .

"The White House is frustrated, the officials said, but the Pentagon is unperturbed."

But now it appears Bush has gotten his way after all. CNN's Barbara Starr reported this morning: "Pentagon officials tell us they are now working out the final details and talking to Turkey about getting final approval for three ships -- two U.S. Navy warships and a Coast Guard cutter -- to cross through the Dardanelles passage and enter the Black Sea and travel to Georgia to deliver humanitarian relief supplies."

What About Engagement?

The Russians think there's a better way.

Mikhail Gorbachev, the former president of the Soviet Union, writes in a New York Times op-ed that Bush's anti-Russia rhetoric is counterproductive: "In recent days, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and President Bush have been promising to isolate Russia. Some American politicians have threatened to expel it from the Group of 8 industrialized nations, to abolish the NATO-Russia Council and to keep Russia out of the World Trade Organization.

"These are empty threats. For some time now, Russians have been wondering: If our opinion counts for nothing in those institutions, do we really need them? Just to sit at the nicely set dinner table and listen to lectures?

"Indeed, Russia has long been told to simply accept the facts. Here's the independence of Kosovo for you. Here's the abrogation of the Antiballistic Missile Treaty, and the American decision to place missile defenses in neighboring countries. Here's the unending expansion of NATO. All of these moves have been set against the backdrop of sweet talk about partnership. Why would anyone put up with such a charade?

"There is much talk now in the United States about rethinking relations with Russia. One thing that should definitely be rethought: the habit of talking to Russia in a condescending way, without regard for its positions and interests."

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov writes in a Wall Street Journal op-ed: "The U.S. seems to be eager to punish Russia to save the face of a failed 'democratic' leader at the expense of solving the problems that are much more important to the entire world.

"It is up to the American side to decide whether it wants a relationship with Russia that our two peoples deserve. The geopolitical reality we'll have to deal with at the end of the day will inevitably force us to cooperate."

And the Russians aren't the only ones calling for engagement.

Andrew Meier writes in a Los Angeles Times op-ed: "Anti-Russian fervor threatens to hit fever pitch in Washington this week. . . .

"Let no one be deceived: [Russian leader Vladimir] Putin has drawn a dangerous new line. Russian troops have trespassed into a sovereign nation for the first time since the dissolution of the Soviet Union. But all such retributive Western campaigns are misguided and, like every attempt to twist Russian arms since the end of the U.S.S.R., sure to backfire.

"There's really only one lever left: Invite Russia to join NATO. . . .

"Amid the talk now in vogue of a 'new cold war,' we are adrift in a sea of lost opportunities. This week, ominous reports have surfaced: that Vice President Dick Cheney's office has pushed for several months to increase military aid to Georgia -- in particular, the sale of hand-held antiaircraft weapons -- at a time when Russia has been flying Tu-95 Bear H bombers, capable of bearing cruise missiles, near the coast of Alaska.

"Russia is moving to reestablish its hegemony over its neighbors, some will say. Yes, it is true. But that is all the more reason to engage, not to chastise. After all, where is America's leverage?"

And The Guardian's editorial board writes: "There was no international settlement when the Soviet Union broke up. The map could easily be redrawn again, and it is in no one's interests that it is done either by Russian tanks or by western security guarantees. Nato's eastward expansion must not only be judged by the benefits enjoyed by its new members, but by the reaction it causes elsewhere. It may have just shifted the line of confrontation eastwards. Without Russia's participation, Nato's ability to solve conflict in the Caucasus is limited. Its ability to spread it, however, is unlimited. Nato's decision yesterday to create a special consultative council for Georgia, and to suspend the one it has with Russia, may appear today to be a useful diplomatic lever. But in the long term the exclusion of Russia from the collective security arrangements of a region where millions of ethnic Russians live is a recipe for conflict."

Bush's Personal Touch

Peter Grier writes in the Christian Science Monitor: "President Bush has long prided himself on his close personal relationships with foreign leaders. But over the last several weeks some of those relationships appear to have gone disastrously awry.

"At their first meeting in 2001, Bush famously said of Russia's then-President Vladimir Putin that he'd looked into his eyes and found him 'trustworthy.' Now prime minister, Mr. Putin defends Russia's invasion of Georgia, which has sent US-Russian relations to their lowest point in years.

"Mr. Bush has long been a staunch supporter of former Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf. Mr. Musharraf has now resigned, and the US faces the tough task of trying to persuade Pakistan's elected leaders to focus on the strengthening Taliban insurgency.

"All recent US presidents have forged bonds with fellow heads of state. The question is, did the Bush administration depend too much on personal interaction and miss the broader geopolitical forces at work in Russia and Pakistan? Some critics charge that is exactly what happened."

And William Pesek writes in a Bloomberg commentary about the toxic effect of a Bush friendship: "There's an underappreciated common denominator among embattled leaders in Asia: George W. Bush.

"For leaders wondering why they lost popular support, there's plenty of blame to go around. In some cases, it was a sluggish economy. In others, it was scandals or corruption. Inept handling of everything from poverty reduction to dodgy infrastructure to climate change may have fanned discontent.

"Yet leaders in nations such as Australia, India, Japan, Pakistan and South Korea also are learning of the perils of cozying up an unpopular U.S. president. They've lost elections, resigned or have high disapproval ratings at least partly because of close ties to Washington."

Torture Watch

Mark Hamblett writes in the New York Law Journal: "A federal judge said Monday he was prepared to hold the Central Intelligence Agency in civil contempt over the destruction of videotapes in which high-level al-Qaida detainees were interrogated abroad.

"But the judge, the Southern District of New York's Alvin Hellerstein, said at a hearing that he would give the government 10 days to produce a declaration to convince him why he should refrain from a contempt finding and from ordering production of a list of the tapes, information on witnesses and any documents or memoranda relevant to the Freedom of Information Act request of the American Civil Liberties Union."

Civil Liberties Watch

Ellen Nakashima writes in The Washington Post: "The federal government has been using its system of border checkpoints to greatly expand a database on travelers entering the country by collecting information on all U.S. citizens crossing by land, compiling data that will be stored for 15 years and may be used in criminal and intelligence investigations.

"Officials say the Border Crossing Information system, disclosed last month by the Department of Homeland Security in a Federal Register notice, is part of a broader effort to guard against terrorist threats. It also reflects the growing number of government systems containing personal information on Americans that can be shared for a broad range of law enforcement and intelligence purposes, some of which are exempt from some Privacy Act protections. . . .

"The disclosure of the database is among a series of notices, officials say, to make DHS's data gathering more transparent. Critics say the moves exemplify efforts by the Bush administration in its final months to cement an unprecedented expansion of data gathering for national security and intelligence purposes. . . .

"Public comments are being taken until Monday, when the 'new system of records will be effective,' the notice states."

Environment Watch

Del Quentin Wilber writes in The Washington Post: "A federal appeals court yesterday struck down a Bush administration rule that prevented states and local governments from imposing stricter monitoring of pollution generated by power plants, factories and oil refineries than required by the federal government.

"In a 2 to 1 decision, a panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit found that the Environmental Protection Agency rule violated a provision of the Clean Air Act, which requires adequate monitoring of emissions to ensure compliance with pollution limits. . . .

"Environmental groups, which brought the lawsuit, said the decision was a significant victory that will help ensure that pollution levels are accurately tracked and reported."

Judge Brett M. Kavanaugh, a former White House staffer, dissented.

Felicity Barringer writes for the New York Times that the ruling "is the most recent in a series of judicial setbacks to the Bush administration's efforts to reshape federal policies under the Clean Air Act. . . .

"'I think it is fair to say that the D.C. Circuit has repudiated the vast bulk of the Bush administration's clean-air regulatory reforms, which were the administration's most notable and significant (if not always wise) environmental policy initiatives,' Jonathan Adler, a law professor at Case Western Reserve University, commented on the case on a legal affairs blog, The Volokh Conspiracy."

Katharine Mieszkowski writes in Salon: "In the excitement of the Olympics, the run-up to the presidential conventions and the flurry of late summer vacations, it was easy to miss the Bush administration's stealth attack on the Endangered Species Act last week. A proposed regulation would simply eliminate independent scientific reviews that have been required for over 30 years.

"'I have been working on the Endangered Species Act for 15 years and have never seen such a sneaky attack,' declared John Kostyack, executive director of wildlife conservation and global warming at the National Wildlife Federation."

The Seattle Times editorial board writes: "For eight years, President George Bush tried to evade the Endangered Species Act. Congress blocked every attempt, so the White House is trying a desperate trick play late in the game....

"This last-minute gambit with rule making as the administration heads out the door must be challenged and stopped."

The Rocky Mountain News editorial board writes: "[W]e don't want a lame-duck White House unilaterally revamping how the act is enforced. Congress should endorse any significant changes, and since it was not invited to participate, we wouldn't be surprised if lawmakers - or the next president - reverse the new policies."

Document Preservation

Christopher Lee writes in The Washington Post: "A consortium of government and nonprofit agencies plans to capture snapshots of every federal government Web site before Jan. 20, when the next president moves into the White House and starts remaking the federal bureaucracy to fit his agenda. The goal of the 2008 'end-of-term harvest' is to preserve millions of agency records in an online archive that librarians hope will provide a valuable trove for historians, government scholars and the public. . . .

"Many federal agency records exist only in digital form and are in danger of disappearing when the administration changes. Digital records are telling, they say, because an administration's policy priorities are often reflected in the face it presents to the world online."

But I have to wonder: What about internal records, including emails and memos? Who is making sure those will be preserved?

India Nuclear Watch

Democratic Reps. Edward J. Markey and Ellen O. Tauscher ask in a New York Times op-ed for the 45-nation Nuclear Suppliers Group to block a Bush-backed "Indian nuclear deal that threatens to rapidly accelerate New Delhi's arms race with Pakistan -- a rivalry made all the more precarious by the resignation on Tuesday of the Pakistani president, Pervez Musharraf. . . .

"If the president gets his way, the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty -- for 50 years, the bulwark against the spread of nuclear weapons -- would be shredded and India's yearly nuclear weapons production capability would likely increase from 7 bombs to 40 or 50. . . .

"Pakistan, with its unstable government and Al Qaeda sanctuaries, is already ratcheting up its nuclear weapons program in an attempt to keep pace with its regional rival. Just last month, the Pakistani government darkly announced that waiving the nuclear rules for India 'threatens to increase the chances of a nuclear arms race in the subcontinent.'"

War Powers Watch

Former congressmen Mickey Edwards and David Skaggs write in a Christian Science Monitor op-ed: "In the United States, the decision to go to war rests with the elected representatives of those who will do the fighting and dying. It's one of the defining -- and critical -- elements of the republic. . . .

"Presidents of both parties have sought to arrogate the power to go to war into the executive branch. In one recent and notable example, senior advisers to President George W. Bush asserted that he had no constitutional obligation to seek authorization from Congress for use of force in Iraq.

"It is easy to blame the president for this state of affairs. He has, after all, advanced a theory and practice of executive supremacy in national security matters that most constitutional scholars find contrary to the tenets of this republic's very principles.

"But disappointingly, the incremental power grab by the executive branch has often been met by a silent abdication of Congress's authority and neglect of its duty. . . .

"Members of Congress must treat the power to go to war as theirs and theirs alone.

"The consequences of war are too grave for us to settle for anything less."

Cartoon Watch

Mike Luckovich on poking and bears, Nick Anderson on Putin's mystique, John Sherffius on the incredible shrinking superpower, Signe Wilkinson on Cold War II, Tom Toles on the last man standing, and Tom Janssen on what Bush leaves behind.

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