Monday, January 18, 2010

Will Haiti be Obama's Katrina

I'm a big fan of President Obama.  I think he's doing the best that he can to address a number of domestic and international challenges.  I was never one who drank the Obama kool-aid and I don't think he's the Messiah.  But his pragmatism generally resonates with me.  As the President's popularity is on the decline, it is not inconceivable that Haiti could the crucial negative data point in the way that Katrina was for G.W. Bush.  Katrina, rightly or wrongly, signaled that the Bush Administration was incompetent.
Even though by almost all accounts, the Obama administration wanted to avoid President Bush's mistakes in Louisiana, the Obama administration may be less successful than it might like.  First, it is not clear to me that the President recognizes that his administration owns this crisis.   Even though the President and the United States is not responsible as a legal matter and much less as a moral matter for the current suffering of the Haitain people, my guess is that Haitians, the world, and most importantly Americans are looking to the President and the United States to take the leadership on responding to this crisis.  (As a colleague said to me today, why aren't we holding the French responsible?) Consequently, I think we own this.  I don't think the administration quite recognizes this fact.  This is one of the more fundamental mistakes that the Bush administration made with Katrina.  Owning this crisis means that the President and the U.S. will be held responsible not for our efforts but for the result.

Second, the administration took too long to provide the necessary and critical aid to aid.  According to this USA Today article, that the United States Air Force is air dropping food into Port-au-Prince.  The question is why has it taken to so long.  Other places, such as Leogane, Haiti according to this article, still have not seen any aid or rescue.  Too many people who survived the earthquake are going to die of secondary infections.  CNN is reporting that the estimates of the death toll according to the European Union is around 200,000 people.  How many of those could have been saved with quicker action by the United States and UN, we will never know, but we will surely ask.

Third, the Bush administration failed to realize that it had to solve the coordination problem in Katrina.  Katrina featured indecision by those at the local level, who felt powerless and were waiting for guidance from the state and the federal government.  The state government was waiting on the federal government and the local officials to take leadership.  And at the federal level there were many entities and it was clear who was in charge.  It was not until General Honore took control that the coordination problem was solved.  There is a similar problem in Haiti, only of course much more acute.  The Haitian government, the nominal authority, is barely functioning (and that may be an understatement).  The U.S. military is in charge of the airport in Port-au-Prince.  The UN is in supposed to be in charge of the relief effort.  And then there are a whole slew of relief organizations trying to do the best that they can.  The lack of coordination and centralized authority has deadly consequences--not an understatement.

Fourth, I've already blogged about the security situation.  If that gets out of hand, it will be the straw that breaks the camel's back.  It looks like both the UN and the US will send more troops to Haiti.  But there is still confusion about who will be in control and how much ground presence will US troops have.

Lastly, the CNN reporters are starting to get extremely agitated by what they see.  Remember Anderson Cooper and Sheppard Smith in New Orleans?  The Obama administration seems to think that the lesson from Katrina was taught by the great philosopher Kanye West: George Bush Does not care about black people.  But the lesson of Katrina may not sympathy or even empathy, but government incompetence.

There are many differences between Katrina and the Haitian earthquake.  But there might also be too many similarities to ignore.


  1. I too share your sentiments about Obama. I believe he is as competent as any of the other candidates in the 2008 election but I did not think he was the Nation's savior. He came into this job with many serious issues facing Americans including an economy in the tank, foreign relations in tatters, and an education system failing. Broader issues like the environment and health care pressing as well. But in my opinion unlike Bush with New Orleans, Obama comes at Haiti from a place of recognition and appreciation.

    Although Bush seemed appropriate, I did not have a sense that he could appreciate the plight of the common man. Looking back at his (Bush) Administration, it seemed to me opportunities to salvage New Orleans, a major city in the United States, were clearly missed. Maybe Bush could not see the issue here were not as simple as black and white.

    As soon as Obama was aware of the quake in Haiti, he created a plan and put people in place to act. His urgency of the issues spurred many Americans to respond in both dollars and sweat.

    It is easy as observer to form opinions about our leaders but unless the media was portraying Bush wrongly, it seems to me Bush was not plugged in his last years. It makes me wonder how Bush would have responded to Haiti had he been president.

  2. The Haitian relief effort is not the responsibility of President Obama's. It is the world's. Certainly, the U.S. and French and maybe even the Canadian governments' response should be disproportionately large given the role and the presence of the Haitian Diaspora in these countries but rightfully, it is a global obligation to relieve the suffering of the Haitian people. Should we hold President Obama and his administration responsible for the slow response? Perhaps, to some degree. I have not looked at any government memos or transcripts yet to determine how long it took for his administration to respond.But certainly his administration have responded in a more timely and coordinated manner than the Bush Administration did to Katrina. More importantly, there are no Michael D. Brown serving as Undersecretary of FEMA. More importantly as a pragmatist, as you have correctly identified him, Haiti is not one of his main priorities: the economy, the two wars, terrorism take precedence. Does President Obama feel a special empathy as a black man seeing a people of African descent suffer so? Perhaps but as a pragmatist, I would argue that his priorities will not and cannot change. Lionel B.

  3. Katrina was not Bush's fault or failing. Consider the proper emergency response, Local-->State-->Federal resources. With 9/11 we had no forewarning, yet the emergency response was Local (FDNY, NYPD), State, then Federal.
    Then you have Katrina where there was plenty of FOREWARNING that this was a CAT 5 hurricane, yet the ultra-incompetent New Orleans mayor Ray Nagin let that whole parking lot full of school buses sit there, and had no evacuation plan prepared, the just as incompetent Governor at the time also had no game plan, but since it was all black residents who didn't heed the warning somehow it became Bush's fault. You wanted the complete opposite response Federal-->State-->Local. Katrina was preventable, Haiti was not. Don't compare the two, unless you're obsessed with skin color.

  4. Really like this post. I also like your article on CNN about calling Haitians looters.