American Caesar

NERO FIDDLED while Rome burned.

President Bush, who’s not big on the classics, probably wasn’t thinking about this when he mugged for the cameras Tuesday, playing a guitar presented to him by country singer Mark Wills.

But with the photo now Exhibit A for many liberal bloggers, he may find the comparison hard to shake.

True, while Bush enjoyed his vacation and strummed his new guitar, a great city was being devastated by water rather than fire.

And unlike the Emperor Nero, who was accused by the historian Suetonius of having deliberately started the fire that destroyed much of Rome in AD 64, no one is accusing President Bush of planning Hurricane Katrina.

But the Bush administration deserves substantial blame for the scale of the catastrophe in New Orleans.


An excellent article this week by Will Bunch in Editor & Publisher points out that it was the cost of the Iraq war that led the Bush administration to defund efforts to shore up the vulnerable city’s levees.

After flooding in 1995 killed six people in New Orleans, the Army Corps of Engineers started work on a massive civil engineering project designed to strengthen the region’s levees and improve the pumping system that regulates water levels.

The work got off to a good start, but in 2003 federal funding started to run dry, leaving many projects -- including a planned effort to strengthen the banks of Lake Pontchartrain -- on the drawing board.

As early as 2004, the New Orleans Times-Picayune began to report that local officials and Army Corps of Engineers representatives attributed the funding cuts to the rising cost of the war in Iraq.

Facing record deficits, the Bush administration cut costs -- and cut corners -- by including in its 2005 budget only about a sixth of the flood-prevention funds requested by the Louisiana congressional delegation.

The war in Iraq also has made recovery from Katrina slower and more challenging. The Army National Guard units normally available for domestic disaster relief found rapid emergency response unusually difficult since so many of their personnel are deployed in Iraq. Although more units were dispatched later in the week, the manpower shortage was painfully evident during the crucial first hours.

The Iraq war is not the only reason for insisting that the Bush administration deserves some blame for the magnitude of the still-unfolding catastrophe.

After 9/11, the president promised that the nation would never again be so unprepared in the face of disaster. The Department of Homeland Security was created with a view to ensuring that every American city had adequate emergency plans in place for the kind of large-scale crisis that could accompany either a terrorist attack or a natural disaster.

It was an empty promise.

Four years after 9/11, the fiasco in New Orleans underscores our nation’s ongoing inability to cope with serious threats.

Take public health, for example: Hurricane preparation plans -- supposedly prepared with the involvement and approval of Homeland Security officials -- were grossly inadequate for ensuring a continued supply of medication to the sick and for the evacuation of the ill and disabled, for cleaning up, ensuring safe drinking water or preventing the spread of disease.

With floodwaters, broken sewage pipes, damaged petrochemical pipelines and floating corpses all over the city, no one seemed to have a clear plan.

If a terrorist’s bomb, rather than a hurricane, had destroyed a levee around Lake Pontchartrain, no one would hesitate to condemn the administration for its lackluster emergency planning and response.

And federal officials had more than a week’s warning that a hurricane was on track for New Orleans -- far more time than they’d likely have of a terrorist attack on critical infrastructure.

Not everything can be blamed on the Bush administration, of course, but for millions of Americans, the catastrophic aftermath of Hurricane Katrina is likely to stand as an indictment of Bush’s false economies, empty promises and foolish priorities.

Consider Louisiana’s wetlands, to take just one example. Policies associated with the administration exacerbated the geographical and ecological conditions for severe flooding. Over the decades, oil and gas company actions played a significant role in destroying the wetlands. Other factors also contributed, including residential development and, ironically, the overbuilding of some of the region’s levees. But the “man-made” aspects of the disaster highlight the folly of the policies of unlimited development and environmental despoliation that the administration has so consistently embraced.

Two thousand years after his death, Nero’s famous fiddling remains an allegory about feckless and selfcentered leadership in times of crisis.

Bush’s guitar-playing antics in the face of the New Orleans devastation may doom him to a similar fate.