Katrina and 9/11: Unhappy anniversaries

Does George W. Bush have anything to celebrate? Do we?

Published August 21, 2006 1:27PM (EDT)

We're coming up on dueling anniversaries -- 9/11 plus five, Katrina plus one -- and it's hard to know which one the GOP ought to be anticipating less.

That used to be an easy one, but it isn't so much anymore. Polls show that Republicans have all but lost what used to be a huge advantage over Democrats on terrorism. News of a possible plot to blow up U.S.-bound jetliners didn't give George W. Bush any kind of bump. And to the extent that Americans buy into the president's oft-repeated claim that Iraq is the "central front" in his war on terror, well, forget about it. According to the latest CBS News poll, 66 percent of the public (and 40 percent of the Republicans polled) disapprove of the way Bush is handling the war in Iraq. Only 9 percent of Americans -- 9 percent! -- think the war in Iraq has reduced the threat of terrorism in the United States.

None of that will stop the White House from wrapping itself in 9/11 memories as next month's anniversary approaches. When all you've got is a hammer, everything looks like the smoldering wreckage of the World Trade Center. Heading into November, the Bush administration needs us all to be thinking about the evildoers who attacked us again -- just as long as we don't pause to remember that we haven't, you know, caught the man who masterminded the attack and that we've made a mess of Iraq in the meantime. We're supposed to be thinking about the George W. Bush of September 2001 -- War President Bush, Megaphone on a Firetruck Bush -- and not about the clueless, detached man who slapped Michael Brown's back and goofed on a guitar while Americans were dying in New Orleans four years later.

Which brings us back to Katrina. The president will make an anniversary trip to the Gulf Coast this week -- he can't not do so, really  but it's awfully hard to see what he'll be celebrating. Over the weekend, the Associated Press offered a front-by-front analysis of the government's long-term response to Katrina. Its verdict? Bush promised to "do what it takes" to rebuild and to "get the work done quickly," but a year later the "government has proven slow and unreliable in keeping the president's promises."

The short version: "The job of clearing debris left by the storm remains unfinished, and has been plagued by accusations of fraud and price gouging. Tens of thousands of families still live in trailers or mobile homes, with no indication of when or how they will be able to obtain permanent housing. Important decisions about rebuilding and improving flood defenses have been delayed. And little if anything has been done to ensure the welfare of the poor in a rebuilt New Orleans."

New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin blames racism for the federal government's slow response to Katrina. "I, to this day, believe if it happened in Orange County, Calif., or South Beach, Fla., it wouldn't have happened," Nagin said Friday in a speech to the National Association of Black Journalists. There's a lot of truth to that. But in failing to capture Osama bin Laden, in bungling the planning for and execution of the war in Iraq, in standing by -- and worse -- while the Middle East has grown increasingly unstable, in presiding over a slow economy, exploding gas prices and rising crime rates, this White House has often shown itself to be incompetent in an equal-opportunity sort of way.

The attacks of 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina may be bookends of the Bush administration, but there's a lot that happened in between the two, and we've still got more than two years to go. Happy anniversary, everyone.

By Tim Grieve

Tim Grieve is a senior writer and the author of Salon's War Room blog.

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