Hurricane Katrina and the "Nobody Could've Predicted" President
"I don't think anybody anticipated the breach of the levees," President George W. Bush protested on September 1, 2005. Ultimately, Bush's feeble - and false - excuse for his tragic failure in the wake of the drowning of New Orleans by Hurricane Katrina four years ago today defined his presidency. As it turns out, from 9/11 and sectarian conflict in Iraq to the election of Hamas and the Bush recession, the leading lights of the Bush administration claimed they never saw it coming. As I first suggested while the economy plunged downward in January, George Bush was the "Nobody Could've Predicted" President.
Even its last throes, the Bush White House insisted the disasters which unfolded on its watch were unforeseeable. Just days before leaving office, Vice President Dick Cheney tried to deflect blame for the calamity on Wall Street and the deepening recession by declaring, "nobody anywhere was smart enough to figure that out" and "I don't know that anybody did." Then, Cheney magically converted failure into a virtue and ignorance into a shield in explaining away the Bush presidency:
"No, obviously, I wouldn't have predicted that. On the other hand I wouldn't have predicted 9/11, the global war on terror, the need to simultaneous run military operations in Afghanistan and Iraq or the near collapse of the financial system on a global basis, not just the U.S."
At every turn, of course, voices both inside and outside the government warned a Bush administration asleep at the switch.
Starting with the prospect of terror attacks on the U.S. homeland. As George W. Bush was taking office in early 2001, the Hart-Rudman Commission on U.S. National Security issued its report declaring "The combination of unconventional weapons proliferation with the persistence of international terrorism will end the relative invulnerability of the U.S. homeland to catastrophic attack" and cautioning "many thousands of American lives" are at risk. At a transition briefing in the White House situation room during the first week of January, Clinton National Security Adviser Sandy Berger warned his successor Condoleezza Rice, "I believe that the Bush Administration will spend more time on terrorism generally, and on al-Qaeda specifically, than any other subject." And on January 25, 2001, counterrorism czar Richard Clarke (who helped lead the 1996 effort to protect the Atlanta Olympics from, among other things, threats from hijacked aircraft) handed the Bush national security team the famous Delenda plan for attacking Al Qaeda.
But in the aftermath of the horrific 9/11 attacks, Condi Rice has played the role of a reverse Nostradmus, detailing the myriad foreign policy and security disasters she failed to predict. Confronted by 9/11 commissioner Richard Ben Veniste about the August 6, 2001 PDB (Presidential Daily Brief) which warned of "patterns of suspicious activity in this country consistent with preparations for hijackings or other types of attacks," national security adviser Rice responded:
"I believe the title was 'Bin Laden determined to strike in U.S.'"
Two weeks later on April 24, 2004, Rice took to the op-ed pages of the Washington Post to argue, "No al-Qaeda threat was turned over to the new administration." And in an argument she would later make repeatedly, Rice first introduced the now ubiquitous "nobody could have predicted" defense on May 16, 2002:
"I don't think anybody could have predicted that these people would take an airplane and slam it into the World Trade Center, take another one and slam it into the Pentagon; that they would try to use an airplane as a missile, a hijacked airplane as a missile. All of this reporting about hijacking was about traditional hijacking."
Even before this week's regurgitation by Dick Cheney, White House spokesman Tony Fratto showed that Rice's talking point had legs. Spoon-fed last month by Fox News anchor Jon Scott's suggestion that "nobody was thinking that there'd be terrorists flying 767s into buildings at that point," Fratto reliably coughed up the laughably discredited sound bite:
"That's true. I mean, no one could have anticipated that kind of attack - or very few people."
Then there's the war in Iraq. The chaos that followed the U.S. invasion - the looting and the breakdown of security, the impact of disbanding the Iraqi army, the explosion of sectarian conflict, the prospects for a Sunni insurgency - was presciently predicted by the CIA and State Department long before the war began.
But for President Bush, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and others in the administration, these disastrous setbacks for the American people were the unfortunate - and unknowable - results of a smashing victory for the United States. As the looting and ransacking of Baghdad spun out of control in April 2003, Rumfeld portrayed the administration's utter lack of foresight as a positive development:
"Think what's happened in our cities when we've had riots, and problems, and looting. Stuff happens!...Freedom's untidy, and free people are free to make mistakes and commit crimes and do bad things. They're also free to live their lives and do wonderful things, and that's what's going to happen here."
A year later as the insurgency was taking a terrible toll of U.S. forces in Iraq, President Bush on August 30, 2004 offered the purest articulation of the uniquely Republican theory that nothing succeeds like failure (especially unanticipated failure):
"Had we had to do it [the invasion of Iraq] over again, we would look at the consequences of catastrophic success - being so successful so fast that an enemy that should have surrendered or been done in escaped and lived to fight another day."
As it turned out, the President's "catastrophic success" extended to his Bush Doctrine of expanding freedom and democracy throughout the Middle East. Sadly, when voters in the Palestinian territories went to the polls in January 2006, they much to surprise of Team Bush overwhelmingly chose Hamas.
That result (one coincidentally not reflected in the State Department's official timeline of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process) came as a complete shock to Secretary of State Rice, if few others. As the New York Times reported:
"I've asked why nobody saw it coming," Ms. Rice said, speaking of her own staff. "It does say something about us not having a good enough pulse."
(Making matters worse, Vanity Fair and others detailed how subsequent covert U.S. backing of armed Fatah units helped spark the bloody civil war that left Hamas in control of Gaza.)
Of course, the Bush administration's refusal to acknowledge that which multitudes had foreseen extends to domestic policy as well. Nowhere is that more true than the devastation wrought on New Orleans and the Gulf Coast by Hurricane Katrina.
FEMA and other federal agencies had long fretted about the danger of a major tropical storm inundating New Orleans, as a 2001 study made clear. As Hurricane Katrina approach the city, Dr. Max Mayfield of the National Hurricane Center briefed President Bush, DHS Secretary Chertoff and FEMA's Brown on Sunday, August 28th, noting later, "It's not like this was a surprise. We had in the advisories that the levee could be topped." That afternoon, the National Weather Service warned, "Most of the area will be uninhabitable for weeks, perhaps longer," adding, "Water shortages will make human suffering incredible by modern standards."
And yet, George W. Bush insisted in the days after the catastrophe, no one could have foreseen the death of New Orleans. As the Washington Post put it:
President Bush, in a televised interview three days after Katrina hit, suggested that the scale of the flooding in New Orleans was unexpected. "I don't think anybody anticipated the breach of the levees. They did anticipate a serious storm," Bush said in a Sept. 1 interview on ABC's "Good Morning America."
Which brings us to Vice President Cheney's pathetic claim earlier this year about the economic crisis that there wasn't "anybody saw it coming." There was, of course, a legion of analysts, journalists and even members of the Bush administration warning about mortgage-backed securities and the collapse of the housing market. But as ThinkProgress documented, White House officials throughout 2008 denied the recession already underway since the previous December. Again, it was the hapless Tony Fratto who offered up the signature Bush sound bite on January 8, 2008:
"I don't know of anyone predicting a recession."
There were those among us who back in 2000 predicted that a President George W. Bush would be a disaster for the United States. As for his supporters, they are in denial now as much as ever; in late 2008, an NBC/Wall Street Journal poll revealed that only 33% of Americans admitted to voting for Bush in 2000 and 2004.