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Wrong Troops, Wrong Gulf, Wrong Time

Money that could have saved New Orleans was spent on the War instead.

by James Leroy Wilson
September 1, 2005

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Wrong Troops, Wrong Gulf, Wrong Time

I know that our planet has earthquakes and volcanoes, and that the "Big One" could erupt anytime. I also know our planet has a history of Ice Ages, and that another one will come, sooner or later. We can't adequately prepare for every eventuality.

But some eventualities are more likely then others. "Given enough time, anything can happen," but there's a difference between a one-in-ten chance of a certain natural disaster occurring this year, and a one-in-a-million chance of some other disaster happening.

I wonder what the planners and officials thought the probability of a Category 5 hurricane hitting near New Orleans would be. Maybe it was a mistake to build the city where it is. But since it was built, and became the fifth largest port in the world, the national and world economy had a special interest that it not be destroyed. Were the levees strong enough and high enough to resist the worst storms that could reasonably be expected? Were there plans to strengthen the city's defenses? Was there funding for such plans?

Federal funding to shore up the levees in New Orleans is not quite the same as throwing federal money at routine road maintenance or museums. Those are indeed examples of "pork barrel spending projects." The importance of New Orleans was realized as far back as Jefferson's day - it was the water gateway to the Midwest. If we are to have national governments and an Army Corps of Engineers engaged in "public works" projects, there are few as important as this.

But, the money wasn't there. As this article in Editor and Publisher reports,

In early 2004, as the cost of the conflict in Iraq soared, President Bush proposed spending less than 20 percent of what the Corps said was needed for Lake Pontchartrain, according to a Feb. 16, 2004, article, in New Orleans CityBusiness.

On June 8, 2004, Walter Maestri, emergency management chief for Jefferson Parish, Louisiana; told the Times-Picayune: "It appears that the money has been moved in the president's budget to handle homeland security and the war in Iraq, and I suppose that's the price we pay. Nobody locally is happy that the levees can't be finished, and we are doing everything we can to make the case that this is a security issue for us."

Hurricane Katrina is, economically, a bigger disaster to the USA than the 9-11 attacks, and it might be worse in terms of loss of life. What fraction of the cost of the War on Iraq- a country that had nothing to do with 9-11 - could have protected New Orleans?

But it's not just funds that are misallocated to Iraq. People, too. As reported in the Army Times.

Some 6,000 National Guard personnel in Louisiana and Mississippi who would be available to help deal with the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina are in Iraq, highlighting the changing role of America's part-time soldiers.


The war has forced the Guard into becoming an operational force, a far cry from its historic role as a strategic reserve primarily available to governors for disasters and other duties in their home states.

At 1.2 million soldiers, the active duty military is simply too small to carry the load by itself when there is a large sustained deployment like Iraq. Nationally, 78,000 of the 437,000 members of the Guard force are serving overseas.

As part of the transformation during the war effort, the National Guard has promised governors that at least 50 percent of soldiers and airmen will be available for stateside duty at all times. In most cases, the rate is well above 50 percent.

Pentagon spokesman Lawrence Di Rita said the Gulf states have adequate National Guard units to handle the hurricane needs, with at least 60 percent of the Guard available in each state.

Who knows if 60% is enough; what if another disaster hits the region? What is mainly troubling about the use of the Guard in Iraq is not that some 15% of the nation's force is there, but that they constantly rotate in and out. Those who joined the Guard specifically to be of service in a crisis like Katrina, are instead put in harm's way in Iraq - for no apparent purpose or benefit to our country. As blogger Jeff Wells puts it, maybe the Guard is in Iraq to "fight the hurricane over there so that we don't have to fight it here."

Or as John Kerry might have put it: "Wrong troops, wrong war, wrong time."

This is what governments do. They misallocate resources. Setting aside any sinister motives and high corruption, even supposedly well-intentioned governments fail to do their job. As the Austrian School of Economics has long held, government planners do not have enough information to establish priorities. You would think that the economic well-being of the Midwest would be a higher priority than the Middle East, that the states of the Gulf of Mexico were more important than the states of the Persian Gulf. That President Bush and Congress would know that the levees of New Orleans were more crucial to America's welfare and security, than the leveling of Fallujah. That they knew their responsibility is to govern the United States, not the world.

But the ambition inherent in politics - the chance for fame and a "place in history," lies in trying to bring peace to the Middle East, in being known as a "courageous wartime leader," in defeating the Hitler of the hour. It doesn't lie in mundane spending bills.

And that's why, in a very real way, we lost New Orleans in the War on Iraq.

Comments (5)

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Brian Mack from Grand Rapids, MI writes:
September 1, 2005

I greatly respect the insight that you typically bring to our country's political circus. But your perspective in this week's column leaves me a little troubled.

My wife and I were watching one of the commentary/news shows on MSNBC last night, and found ourselves driven to another channel by the commentators need to create a story within the story regarding the lack of police and military presence in the areas impacted by Katrina. There was no quantifiable evidence of a lack of response, only the eyewitness testimony of yet another talking head who was on location. Yet this individual persisted in forwarding the opinion that the government (local, state and federal) had already fumbled the relief effort. His intention was no doubt to keep me watching as his station uncovered the facts behind this shocking negligence. This journalistic tactic left me feeling like I had just been pitched by the most stereotypical of used car salesmen.

While I admit that there is little connection between your comments and this psuedo-news reporting, I must admit that I am struck by the same feeling reading your article that I had watching TV last night. As if you were using the example of Katrina as one more reason why we should be dissatisfied and disgusted with our governmental leadership.

I am deeply troubled by our current situation in Iraq, and I am even less enthusiastic about the current administration. I do believe that the President had motives beyond winning the war on terror and removing weapons of mass-destruction for his ordered invasion of Iraq. But I find any connection between our current military presence in a foreign country and its impact on our ability to respond to an unforseen natural disaster to be tenuous at best. Woulda, coulda, shoulda is a pretty weak argument in my mind, and is certainly not up to your typically excellent standard.

To me its a little bit like invading Iraq in order to capture Osama Bin Laden...

My humble opinion, for whatever its worth...

Mike Thomson from Paeonian Springs, Virginia writes:
September 2, 2005
I was watching tv last night along with many other Americans - in my case, anxiously - because I have family and friends in the affected area. I was watching Fox - which some call the mouthpiece of the Bush Administration and I don't believe Sheperd Smith was exaggerating anything at all when he would go up to policemen on the street in New Orleans and ask them when aid was coming and they would look away and ignore him. Relatives who have just been found in Biloxi are telling stories of looting throughout the city and NO National Guardsmen to protect property and individuals.

It is a mess in that region when the crisis is over, a great deal of justified blame will be laid at the feet of the Bush Administration for being so distracted by Iraq that they fell asleep at the wheel during the biggest natural disaster in this country's memorable history.

Anyone who has followed James Leroy Wilson's columns for a length of time know that he and I have not always been in agreement on a number of issues. But on this occasion JLW is right on target and may in fact have defined the coming national argument on this issue.

The fact that the reader, Brian Mack, is troubled by the news coverage is troubling to me. The media has so far been the only reliable information source coming out of that distressed region. The other talking heads in Washington seem to be totally disconnected as to what is going on in the region. I lived through three hurricanes in Florida last year and we had excellent police and national guard response most due to the fact that the president's brother is governor of that state and [I know this is politically incorrect to say] and a great number of that state's population ethnicity is white European.

Brian Mack from Grand Rapids, MI writes:
September 6, 2005
Mike wrote: It is a mess in that region when the crisis is over, a great deal of justified blame will be laid at the feet of the Bush Administration for being so distracted by Iraq that they fell asleep at the wheel during the biggest natural disaster in this country's memorable history.


I cannot disagree with this assesment. I also agree with your observation that the Washington establishment is COMPLETELY out of touch. That unfortunately is news to NOONE. However, I find the rush to judgement a little disturbing, and more than a little beside the point at this time.

There will be plenty of opportunity to afix blame AFTER the lost have been counted, and the families have had time to lay them to rest. I believe that our combined focus should be on the unimaginable human tragedy that is being experienced by all who have been impacted by this disaster, rather than on the political implications for those in elected office.

My unease with the news coverage is the tabloid-like relish that these organizations (particularly the 24 hour news networks) are using to approach their coverage. Has anyone noticed that their hasn't been word one about the missing teen in Aruba since the hurricane? The old Don Henley song hit the nail squarely on the head: Got the bubble headed bleach blond, comes on at five. She can tell you 'bout the plane crash, with a gleam in her eye. It's interesting when people die, give us dirty laundry.

It is a very easy thing to criticize those tasked with getting the job done from the relative safety and security of our living rooms. But an entirely different issue to actually make all that needs to happen logistically come off without incident. As I said before, coulda, woulda, shoulda is a pretty weak and unproductive line of thought at the moment.

What has struck me most thus far, has been the Herculean efforts by so many to make the people hit hardest by Katrina more comfortable and reestablish some sense of security. I fully appreciate the problems that are occuring, and that law and order in the impact zone is partucularly tenuous. All that I am saying is rather than rush to be critical of what still remains undone, let's highlight all that is being accomplished.

I am going to reserve response to your last comment Mike. Call me idealistic, but I refuse to believe that disaster relief within the borders of our own nation would be handled any differently based on the skin color or ethnic origin of those involved, regardless of who is in the White House.


Mike Thomson from Paeonian Springs, VA writes:
September 12, 2005
Reply to Brian Mack on skin color: Brian, God Bless you for your idealism, but I am a product of the Deep South and I know politicians from Florida to Texas - having been active in Republican politics for several years. In quiet conversations - Whites only present - the N word and wetback are in common usage throughout the region. Even white blue collar workers who sometimes struggle with their mortgage payment always seem to cough up the tuition money to send their kids to basically all white Christian schools. It is getting better - but it is a slow moving process. In 1983 which was several years after the massive civil rights bill I was ordered by a National Guard commander to curtail my recruitment of blacks and women into certain National Guard units. The commander's fear was that in case of a riot he didn't feel safe with blacks controlling the streets and did not have confidence in women to be able to do the job. Naturally, I reported this commander and a massive federal investigation took place with the resulting reprimands and punitive actions - it turned out that racism was alive and well throughout the Alabama National Guard. Never having lost contact with my National Guard colleagues - who by the way get paid with federal dollars - some of the same fears expressed by that commander twenty-two years ago are still pervasive throughout the area. I am not convinced - despite his words to the contrary- that George W. Bush's political weather vane does not react to some of those attitudes. Here is my most cynical comment of all: The new Disneyfied New Orleans will be primarily white. Don't think for a moment that those evacuees who will soon be in the workforces of cities all over the U.S. will be able to afford to return.

S.E. Shepherd from Chicago, IL writes:
September 15, 2005
Mike, you silly man - there will always room for minorities in big cities like New Orleans. Where else are all the busboys, maids, waiters, cab drivers, and cooks going to live? If they can't afford cars (which the vast majority of those stranded didn't), they're going to have to live some place close so they can at least get to these jobs via public transportation.

Plus there has to be a few token successful minorities to show how progressive and multi-cultural New Orleans is, was and will always be.

While I fail to believe that racism took any place in the early relief efforts, I do believe class did - nearly everyonne has now heard of the infamous prophetic National Geographic article printed in October of 2004. In a simulation of a hurricane disaster in New Orleans, who got left behind? The sick, the elderly, the car-less and the homeless, plus the die-hards who refused to leave. Lo and behold, that's exactly what happened.

Look at any major city in America and who lives in the poorest neighborhoods? Usually minorities - that's why racism and classism look so much alike. I'm not so naive or optomistic to believe that racism does not exist, even in Northern cities (we're just a little more covert), it is an intentional coincidence that the worst schools are in the poorest neighborhoods, which are almost always non-white.

The failure/disaster of Katrina lies in those disaster planners who naively believed that everyone who needed to evacuate New Orleans (and the other devistated towns) had the means to do so by simple driving away.

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