Historian and international systems analyst Immanuel Wallerstein attributes to "a combination of incompetence and decline" the lamentable U.S. response to Hurricane Katrina in this Sept. 15 commentary.  --  As director of the Fernand Braudel Center, Wallerstein is used to taking the long view:  Fernand Braudel specialized in studying la longue durĂ©e, and Immanuel Wallerstein has analyzed in many volumes the workings of what he calls "the modern world-system."  --  In the long run, says Wallerstein, what will be most affected by Hurricane Katrina is "the image of the U.S." ...

By Immanuel Wallerstein

Fernand Braudel Center
September 15, 2005
Commentary No. 169


The entire world has been following with stupefaction the incredible performance of the U.S. federal government's response to the physical and human disaster of the hurricane Katrina. All the television networks of the U.S. and of many other countries plus all the major newspapers have been following the story in detail. The general reaction has been to ask how could the government of the richest and most powerful country in the world have reacted to this disaster as poorly as, or even much less well than, governments of poor Third World countries? The simple answer is a combination of incompetence and decline. And the results of this disaster will be a further diminution of respect for the president within the United States and a deepened skepticism in other countries about the United States' capacity to put action behind vacuous rhetoric.

The initial reaction of George W. Bush to Katrina was to say, how could anyone have predicted that the levees would be breached and 80% of the city of New Orleans flooded? As a matter of fact, the Houston Chronicle predicted it in 2001. The New Orleans Times-Picayune predicted it in 2002. And the National Geographic, one of America's most widely-read magazines (and one totally apolitical), predicted it in 2004. As a matter of fact as well, such a catastrophe was listed in documents of the government published during Bush's own presidency as one of three potential major catastrophes that were quite possible. In addition, anyone listening to the television two days before Katrina struck heard the mayor of New Orleans warn the citizens of New Orleans (and the world) that this time, this was a really serious storm, and he ordered mandatory evacuation of the city. As everyone knows now very well, only 80% of the residents had the car and the money with which to evacuate. Did the U.S. government think urgently to send in buses before the storm hit and the levees broke, in order to evacuate the other 20 percent? Of course not.

Ten days after the crisis began, the government seemed to get its act together somewhat, but ten days is a long time. This long delay was however not accidental. It is the direct result of how the Bush regime operates -- poor judgment and active indifference to anything that isn't high on their list of priorities. They missed the boat at many different points in the almost five years before Katrina. After Sept. 11, they promised to make sure that the government would be prepared for any emergency. This was in fact the whole point of establishing the Dept. of Homeland Security. Obviously, they did not do it. They proved as unprepared for Katrina as they were for 9/11. Just last year, they urged Congress to reduce the amount of money that could have been used by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to repair the levees that were in bad shape. So the Corps of Engineers had to postpone the work.

There is then the question of predicting a storm of such magnitude. There are currently two competing explanations for the ferocity of the storm. One is global warming, which is said to have created conditions in the Gulf of Mexico that favored intensifying hurricanes. The Bush administration has of course always contended that global warming doesn't exist, or at least is greatly exaggerated. The competing explanation is that hurricane strength is a cyclical phenomenon, and that every thirty years or so, the average strength goes up and then goes down. But even if only the latter explanation is used (one that fits the political position of the Bush regime better), it was easy to see that the thirty-year period of weaker hurricanes had come to an end and therefore something like Katrina was highly likely to occur. So, why wasn't the government on the alert? Incompetence and indifference because preventing hurricane damage to New Orleans (and indeed the rest of the Gulf Coast) was not on the high priority list of an administration which wants to fight a war in Iraq, persuade Congress to allow it to drill for oil in Alaska, and repeal the estate tax so that the 2% wealthiest people in the United States can be relieved of this burden.

Another major factor is the political style of Bush and his associates. They made political appointments to all the top posts in the administration. There is nothing unusual in this, since all U.S. presidents do this. But what was different in the Bush style is that Bush and all his appointees were deeply suspicious of the political tendencies of the experienced bureaucrats in the government agencies. They ignored them, they intimidated them, they overruled them regularly. And so these skilled bureaucrats tended to resign. It has been a veritable exodus, not least in the Federal Emergency Management Administration (FEMA), the agency in charge of handling such disasters. And this is of course part, a large part, of the explanation of why FEMA did such a bad job -- at least until the president finally pulled his incompetent FEMA head, Michael Brown, off the job and turned it over to a Coast Guard Vice-Admiral, who has been handling similar crises for his entire career.

The real question is what now? I am not asking this about the victims, who are suffering in multiple ways and are likely to suffer for some time to come, since they are scattered across the country, without money or jobs or homes. I am asking what now, first for President Bush and secondly for the United States? Bush's ratings, which are already extremely low (by comparison with past presidents), are likely to go lower still. The war in Iraq is every day more unpopular at home and more unwinnable in Iraq. Bush cannot find a way to exit gracefully. The economy is not in good shape at all -- oil prices are surging upward, and Katrina surely did not improve things, since New Orleans is a key port in the import and export of U.S. goods, and since both oil wells and natural gas installations in the Gulf of Mexico have been badly damaged. And since the U.S. is now estimated to need to increase its debt by $200 billion to do the necessary reconstruction, the Chinese and other buyers of treasury bonds must be getting more hesitant than ever about subsidizing the improvident Bush regime.

But it is the image of the U.S. that will be the most affected. When El Salvador has to offer troops to help restore order in New Orleans because U.S. troops were so scarce and so slow in arriving, Iran cannot be quaking in its boots about a possible U.S. invasion. When Sweden has its relief planes sitting on the tarmac in Sweden for a week because it cannot get an answer from the U.S. government as to whether to send them, they are not going to be reassured about the ability of the U.S. to handle more serious geopolitical matters. And when conservative U.S. television commentators talk of the U.S. looking like a Third World country, Third World countries may begin to think that maybe there is a grain of truth in the description.