BATON ROUGE, Louisiana (Reuters) – U.S. President George W. Bush said on Sunday that Congress ought to consider giving the U.S. military the lead role in responding to natural disasters, as he heard one general describe the Hurricane Katrina rescue effort as a “train wreck.”
Hmmm. Why was it a train wreck, indeed? Because Mike Brown had no experience in disaster relief and Mike Chertoff really didn’t know what to do anyway.
Even Robert Novak, best known for outing CIA employees and then letting others go to jail over it, has turned his back on Chertoff.
So now Mr. Bush suggests putting the military in charge. This would turn a two century tradition of civilian control of the military on its head, a tradition that many historians hold partially responsible for there never having been even an attempted military takeover of the United States government.
FEMA has shown in the past that, with competent leadership, it can respond effectively to disasters.
What’s the difference between now and the 1990’s? The president in the 1990s gave FEMA qualified leaders, then let FEMA do its thing. The president since 2000 has used FEMA as a dumping ground for political hacks and cronies, stripped its budget, and buried its autonomy in the vast wasteland of the Department of Homeland Security. (He wasn’t alone in this. Indeed, he was a reluctant endorser of the DHS, but he did eventually endorse it and appointed the aforementioned hacks and cronies to lead it.)
DHSs job is to protect the US from external threats; it is not surprising that an agency chartered to respond to natural disasters did not get much attention. That’s the way large organizations work.
Similarly, the military’s role is to protect the US from external threats. Certainly, the military has logistical expertise and resources unmatched by any other organization on US soil. Indeed, they were ready to move in response to Katrina at the request of civil authorities, but those requests were sorely delayed.
But they have no expertise or training in planning responses to natural disasters and certainly no training in law enforcement.
This proposal is a non-starter on every level, but it does have the virtue of creating an appearance that Mr. Bush is doing something.
Now, the interesting question is what these different organizations have in common. Good problem-solving techniques recommend following problems till you find a common factor, then looking at that factor. Organization charts are frequently useful in this:
So let’s look at the chart:
What do the Department of Homeland Security and the United States Department of Defense have in common? I submit it is at that confluence you will find the root cause of the problem. Everything else is but a symptom.
Moving lines on the chart won’t change anything so long as those lines ultimately still point to the same common factor.