Thursday, September 29, 2005

Bob Herbert 9/29/05 & 10/7/05

September 29, 2005
Blood on Their Hands
The special House committee investigating the government's response to the Hurricane Katrina catastrophe (sometimes known as the Committee to Keep the Heat Off Bush) gave a good thrashing on Tuesday to Michael Brown, the terminally hapless former head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

At the moment, nothing's safer politically in the U.S. than pounding the heck out of Brownie. But pummeling a scapegoat, even one as mouthwateringly tempting as the spectacularly clueless Mr. Brown, will not get us closer to understanding the monumental breakdown of government that contributed mightily to one of the greatest tragedies in American history.

For that we need a highly respected and truly independent commission that is willing to root out all the facts, no matter how embarrassing to the people in power, and lay out a reasonable plan for the future. The Bush administration wants no part of that.

On this issue, the American people should take a stand. Government at all levels failed the city of New Orleans and other parts of the Gulf Coast, and many died as a result. This was a widely predicted tragedy, and still it was allowed to happen. The mayor of New Orleans, a Democrat by the name of Ray Nagin, should have known better than anyone else in the country that a large portion of his city's population would be unable to evacuate on their own because they didn't have money, or they didn't have cars, or they didn't have a place to go, or they were just too ill to move. He failed in his obligation to them.

Make no mistake: government officials have blood on their hands. Men, women and children - some of them handicapped, some of them elderly or already desperately ill - were condemned to horrible suffering and, in many cases, agonizing deaths. Human beings were left to drown in their flooded homes, in hospitals, in nursing homes and in the street. The American people deserve to know why.

Even as the tragedy was unfolding, carried live on television screens across the U.S. and around the world, President Bush declined to intervene in a timely and effective way. Had he acted promptly, he no doubt could have saved some lives. But he didn't. His inaction seemed both inexplicable and unforgivable, and would certainly be a main focus of an independent investigation.

The Times reported yesterday that even the Louisiana National Guard was unprepared to carry out its Hurricane Katrina mission. Hampered from the start by a shortage of troops and crucial equipment because of the deployment of Guard members in Iraq, commanders saw the situation go from bad to much, much worse when floodwaters overwhelmed their Jackson Barracks headquarters, which is in a low-lying section of New Orleans, downriver from the French Quarter.

Despite clear warnings that the hurricane might be disastrous, the Guard's commanders had not considered moving their vulnerable headquarters. When the flooding hit, chaos ensued. Commanders became preoccupied with salvaging what they could and rescuing soldiers who could not swim. Operations were then moved by boat and helicopter to the Superdome.

Televised hearings on matters of great national interest can bring out the worst in Congressional committee members. They tend to behave like actors at a casting call. It's all about them. This is a matter too grave and too complex to be investigated by the perpetually partisan, hey-look-at-me crowd on Capitol Hill. (The special House committee is primarily a Republican show. The Democrats, with a couple of exceptions, are boycotting it.)

President Bush, whose poor judgment gave us Mr. Brown as the head of FEMA, wants nothing more than a whitewash of his administration's role in the debacle. Back on Sept. 6, with criticism coming at him from all directions, he said, "What I intend to do is lead a - to lead an investigation to find out what went right and what went wrong."

We already know what went right. Very little. What is needed now are the findings and the learned counsel of a bipartisan group of distinguished, sincere and dedicated individuals who are capable of keeping the best interests of the people of the United States in mind.

Terrorism remains an enormous threat - the No. 1 threat - to the U.S. The tragically inept response to Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath (and the enormous difficulties encountered in the evacuation ahead of Hurricane Rita) tells us the nation is far from prepared to successfully meet that threat.

Copyright 2005 The New York Times Company

For No Good Reason
by Bob Herbert
The New York Times
October 3, 2005

"You can keep the flowers blooming on their graves forever. It won't change the fact that they died for nothing."
- antiwar protester, circa 1969

It's finally becoming clear on Capitol Hill, and maybe even in the White House, that the United States cannot win the war in Iraq. The only question still to be decided is how many more American lives will be wasted in George W. Bush's grand debacle.

The wheels have fallen off the cart in Iraq, and only those in the farthest reaches of denial are hanging on to the illusion of an American triumph over the insurgency.

Air Force General Richard Myers, who retired Friday as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was publicly chastised at an Armed Services Committee hearing last week by Senator John McCain of Arizona, who has always been a strong proponent of the war.

Senator McCain bluntly declared that "things have not gone as we had planned or expected, nor as we were told by you, General Myers."

The general replied, "I don't think this committee or the American public has ever heard me say that things are going very well in Iraq."

The gruesome events throughout Iraq over the past month or so were understandably overshadowed in the American media by the obliteration of New Orleans and other matters connected to Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. An apocalyptic tone was set on Aug. 31 when nearly 1,000 people were killed in a stampede on a bridge in northern Baghdad. The stampede was provoked by rumors of a suicide bomber.

Another two dozen Iraqis were killed in attacks by insurgents on Sept. 3. A few days later a taxi blew up outside a crowded restaurant in Basra, killing 16. That attack came just hours after four American contractors in Basra were killed by a bomb that was detonated next to their convoy.

The violence would continue without respite. Nearly 200 Iraqis were killed in just 48 hours in a series of suicide bombings in Baghdad on Sept. 14 and 15.

On the evening of Sept. 17, a Saturday, insurgents used a remote control device to detonate a car bomb in a crowded marketplace on the outskirts of Baghdad. At least 30 people were killed. A dozen Americans, including a State Department aide and eight soldiers, were killed in a series of attacks from the 19th through the 23rd of September.

And so on.

The president who slept through the early days of the agony in New Orleans is sleepwalking through the never-ending agony in Iraq. During an appearance at a naval base in California, Mr. Bush characterized the war that he started in Iraq as the moral equivalent of America's struggle against the Nazis and the Japanese in World War II.

If that's true, the entire nation should be mobilized. But, of course, it's not true. This is a reckless, indefensible war that has been avoided like the plague by the children of the privileged classes.

Even the most diehard defenders of this debacle are coming to the realization that it is doomed. So the party line now is that the Iraqis at some point will have to bear the burden of Mr. Bush's war alone.

Talk about a cruel joke. On the same day that Senator McCain faced off with General Myers, more than 100 people were killed in a series of car bombs in a town north of Baghdad; five U.S. soldiers were killed by a roadside bomb in Ramadi; and the American general in charge of U.S. forces in Iraq, George Casey, admitted before the Armed Services Committee that only 1 of the Iraqi Army's 86 battalions was capable of fighting the insurgency without American help.

The American death toll in Iraq is fast approaching 2,000. If the public could see the carnage close up, the way it saw the horror of New Orleans, the outrage would be beyond belief.

You never want to say that brave troops died for the mindless fantasies spun by a gang of dissembling, inept politicians. But what else did they die for?

And what about all those men and women, some of them barely out of childhood, who are lying awake nights, hardly able to move their broken, burned and paralyzed bodies? What do we tell them as they lie there, unable to curb the pain or fight off the depression, or even begin to understand the terrible thing that has happened to them?

What do we tell them about this war that their country inflicted on them for no good reason whatsoever?
Posted: October 4, 2005


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