Politics & Policy

God Vs. War

Don't militarize disaster relief.

Nobody looked good during the Katrina response, except the U.S. military. In keeping with Washington’s habit of always fixing yesterday’s problem in ways that might cause trouble tomorrow, the military’s star performance in Katrina means that it might get the lead role in any significant natural disaster in the future.

Democrats have long clamored for more “first responders.” Well, now they are about to get 1.4 million of them. President Bush has said that the lesson from Katrina is that we need “a broader role for the armed forces–the institution of our government most capable of massive logistical operations on a moment’s notice.” Instead of using the military as a last resort in such large-scale disasters, the administration is considering going to it first and removing legal obstacles to such a role. This is a seductive but mistaken idea.

The military’s response to Katrina was impressive, especially compared with the Department of Homeland Security. Like the pope in Stalin’s barb, the DHS has no “divisions,” and is a ramshackle product of the biggest bureaucratic reorganization in 50 years. “It can be viable,” an administration official says of the department, “but not in this decade.”

So the DHS is on the outs. For such a bold crew, the Bush administration has shown a remarkable ability to be buffeted by the latest fads. It was against the creation of a homeland-security department, before it was for it. It was against the 9/11 commission, before it was for it. It was lukewarm on implementing the 9/11 commission’s recommendation of a pointless reorganization of the intelligence bureaucracy, before it was for it. Now it is for the latest hot new idea–militarization of disaster relief–to make up for the deficiencies of the last hot new idea, the DHS.

Of course, the military has crept further into disaster response already, since we face the specter of massive terrorist acts on our shores. But a terror attack is an act of war, whereas a hurricane is an act of God. The latter is a purely domestic matter in a way that the former isn’t.

The current obstacles to calling on federal troops are hardly insurmountable. A governor can simply ask for them, as Gov. Pete Wilson did in 1992 during the L.A. riots. The problem in New Orleans was that Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco wouldn’t ask.

Even in this situation, the president has awesome powers. Bush could have invoked the Insurrection Act, which would allow him to go over Blanco’s head to use troops to quell the unrest; it just would have been politically risky for him. That’s not such a bad thing. Such speed bumps are useful in a political system that values checks on governmental power. If we wanted simply the most efficient government possible, we wouldn’t have federalism and the U.S. Congress in the first place.

Are state and local government always feckless? Not necessarily. No one accuses Florida Gov. Jeb Bush of mishandling hurricanes. If the people of a state tolerate corruption and inefficiency, and elect governors and mayors who are distinguished only by their lack of distinction, they can expect disarray in a pinch. The military doesn’t exist to save people from the consequences of self-government. Otherwise, we could appoint Lt. Gen. Russel Honore governor of Louisiana and leave it at that.

Yes, the military is extraordinary. But the very qualities that make it so–the discipline, the organization, the precision–are forged because it must deal with the most trying of human experiences: combat. The mission defines the organization. If the mission changes, the organization will as well, and the qualities that make the military so enviable will be bleached away.

Is the DHS dysfunctional? Make it work. Do we need better first responders? Train police and firefighters to higher standards. Is coordination between the levels of government inadequate? Fix it. Don’t look to the military as a cure-all just because it’s an institution that, at the moment, the nation’s political leadership hasn’t botched.

Rich Lowry is author of Legacy: Paying the Price for the Clinton Years.

(c) 2005 King Features Syndicate

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