The Baghdad-New Orleans Double Feature
by Leon Hadar
Glimpse through the commentary pages of American newspapers
and you are bound to run into a headline comparing the mess in American-occupied
Iraq to the chaos in hurricane-devastated Louisiana.
In fact, forget about the op-ed and commentaries bashing the Bush
administration and watch for a few minutes the 24/7 coverage of
one of the cable news networks. What you'll probably see is that
famous split-screen: There on the left side of your screen are American
soldiers patrolling the ruins of what was once a thriving urban
center and is now the scene of death and destruction. And there
on the right side of your screen are American soldiers patrolling
the ruins of what was once another thriving urban center – but,
hey, is it New Orleans that you are seeing on the left and is it
Fallujah that is being shown on the right?
Media Czarina spins Iraq and Louisiana
Never mind. After all, according to White House aides, it is all
the fault of journalists and pundits that the image of the United
States has taken a beating in Fallujah and New Orleans.
Bush administration officials and their allies in the neoconservative
magazines and think tanks depict the critics of the administration,
including quite a few Republicans, as members of the Reality-Based
Community. Those in charge of the administration's occupation in
the Persian Gulf and relief efforts in the Gulf Coast constitute
the Faith-Based Community.
The Bushies are confident that effective PR kills the messengers
of bad news from Iraq and New Orleans. 'There are a lot of things
being said about us around the world that aren't true,' according
to Karen Hughes who was appointed as the administration's global
media czarina and is expected to polish America's post-Iraq-War
image around the world. According to the Washington Post she told
colleagues that the Bush Administration has "marshaled the
resources of our federal government" to help the people of
Louisiana, and if things look different on television, well, "we
need to aggressively challenge that idea around the world."
Indeed, when it comes to the Bush Administration and its spin masters,
it's all about repeating again and again the upbeat Line of the
Day and trying to draw the outlines of a cheery script that will
overpower the depressing Mad Max images that reporters are transmitting
from Iraq and Louisiana. The Sunnis have rejected the proposed Iraqi
constitution and violence is on the rise? Don't forget Condoleezza
Rice's mantra, sounding at time like the cries of a parrot on crack:
"Freedom is on the March! Freedom is on the March! Freedom
The failure of the Bush Administration to deal with Katrina has
been responsible for the death, destruction and disease in the New
Orleans? Guys, please, don't play the "blame game" insist
the Bushies and promise that "They'll be plenty of time to
do after action analysis."
Medals for the Michaels?
Mmm... Does that mean that we'll have two or three more "bipartisan
commissions" headed by distinguished lawmakers and statesmen
that would blame a few low and midlevel official in the chain of
command for what happened in New Orleans, not unlike those intelligence
officers who had been already accused of failing to forecast 9/11
and for predicting that we would find Weapons of Mass Destruction
(WMD) in Iraq?
And will the conclusions by these Katrina Commissions be issued
after the mid-term Congressional election, and preferably after
President Bush leaves office? And as several pundits have speculated
half-jokingly – the emphasis is here on the "half"
– will the two Michaels, Homeland Security Secretary Michael
Chertoff and Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) Director
Michael Brown, be the next recipient of the Presidential Medal of
Freedom, following the footsteps of two other winners, former CIA
director George ('It's a Slam Dunk') Tenet and Paul Bremer, who
was responsible for mismanaging the US occupation of Iraq.
You don't have to be a cynic to treat with a sense of skepticism
the notion that the US government will eventually punish those who
were really responsible for the fiasco in New Orleans – or
that lawmakers and officials will come up with effective ways to
correct the problems and make sure that they aren't repeated.
Consider the following: None of the top political and military
figures who have been responsible for the Abu Ghraib catastrophe
– as opposed to the soldiers in the field who had followed orders
– have been reprimanded.
Creating the Department of Homeland Security in response to 9/11
and absorbing FEMA into the new bureaucratic behemoth has probably
been one of the main reasons that the US government wasn't prepared
for the Katrina disaster.
Guess who is watching television?
Among those watching the television images from Iraq and Louisiana
are probably those who were responsible for producing the images
that traumatized Americans and the world exactly four years ago
on 9/11. It's quite possible that Osama bin Laden and his gang of
terrorists have concluded, based on the American performance in
those two theaters of operation, that another terrorist attack on
an American urban center – involving the use of biological
and chemical weapons – could help them achieve their goals,
especially if the Bush Administration's response will combine the
effectiveness that characterized the recent performance in Louisiana
and the geo-strategic creativity that resulted in the decision to
invade Iraq and the political-military skills demonstrated in the
management of the occupation of that country.
Will Chicago in the aftermath of a terrorist attack look like post-hurricane
New Orleans and will the Bush Administration retaliate by invading
There is little doubt that the Bush administration's Baghdad-New
Orleans double feature is eroding the credibility of America abroad,
making it more difficult for the administration to mobilize support
from Congress and American citizens to expand US military and financial
commitments in the Middle East.
"The view from abroad of an America floundering on the Gulf
Coast was frightening," former army general and Democratic
presidential candidate Wesley Clark told a conference in Washington
"It comes at a time when we Americans have lost much of our
legitimacy in the eyes of the world," Clark said during the
event organized by the New America Foundation, a Washington-based
Progressive and nationalist fantasies
Some of the critics of the Bush administration have expressed their
hope that the war in Iraq and the hurricane in Louisiana could ignite
public demand for political change in the United States. This would
usher a new era in which a reenergized progressive movement will
promote social-economic equality at home and diplomatic internationalism
abroad. It would demand 'sacrifices' from the American people to
help close the gap between the 'haves' and have-nots' in the country,
and spread freedom and democracy around the world.
Such expectations reflect much wishful thinking on the part of
those public intellectuals who are nostalgic about the sense of
National Greatness that was supposedly projected by the political
dynasties of the Roosevelts and the Kennedys in the 20th century.
The problem is that the political and economic trends that are
evident in American society in the early 21st century make it less
likely that any US president can succeed in getting the members
of the nation's middle class – that is, those who actually vote
in elections – to support policies aimed at massive redistribution
of wealth at home, and lengthy and costly military crusades abroad.
Instead, while many Americans will demonstrate their generosity
by helping the victims of Katrina, the long-term response will be
in the direction of erecting more barriers between the 'haves' and
'have-nots' – more gated communities and less of a drive towards
a shared community.
Social and economic inequality will be growing in the America in
the coming years and these divisions marked by education, class
and race will be accentuated by the failure of millions of Hispanic
immigrants to integrate in American society. Just imagine the economic
and social nightmare that will take place in California with its
huge number of Mexican immigrants (legal and illegal) in the aftermath
of the coming earthquake (the Big One).
Similarly, while Americans will support a tough and even a deadly
military response to terrorist attacks, there is very little
support among them for promoting nation-building worldwide. That
sentiment will probably become even more pronounced as a result
of the depressing experience in Iraq and the Broader Middle East.
Hence one shouldn't be surprised if the grand global crusades promoted
by the neoconservatives will be replaced by a more sensible policy
of protecting America from real external threats. Bye, bye the American
Empire; Hello, Gated America.
Hadar [send him mail] is
Washington correspondent for the Business
Times of Singapore and the author of the forthcoming Sandstorm:
Policy Failure in the Middle East (Palgrave Macmillan).
© 2005 Singapore Press Holdings Ltd. All rights reserved. Reprinted
with permission of the author.