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The Politics of Triage

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The Bush Administration has proved incapable of triage: "the determination of priorities for action in an emergency." Unfortunately, this is an inadequacy whose consequences extend far beyond their failure in Iraq.

The Bush White House can't do crisis management. We saw this in their response to 9/11, civil war in Iraq, and Hurricane Katrina. In each case they first refused to recognize that the event was an emergency. Thereafter, the President and his advisers proved incapable of setting priorities for action-of engaging in the triage process.

The Bush Administration refused to name an emergency because this would focus negative attention on the President. Then, as the crisis unfolded, the White House failed to prioritize action alternatives. Finally, they didn't learn from their mistakes. Afterward, the Administration didn't consider what had gone wrong and take remedial action to make sure the same mistakes weren't repeated again. This led to a sad but familiar pattern: The White House retained ineffective managers even though they'd made ghastly mistakes and proven incapable of dealing with triage.

The President and his advisers failed to recognize there was a state of emergency before 9/11. Then, after the terrorist attack, their triage process didn't work. For example, it was unclear who was in charge and interceptor aircraft weren't deployed effectively. The Administration then set the proper course of action-going after Al Qaida in Afghanistan-but didn't implement it properly-had an over reliance on technology and mercenaries. Finally, after the failed battle at Tora Bora, the White House changed priorities and decided to invade Iraq. Remarkably, no one in the Administration was punished for these failures; indeed, the same team planned the invasion and occupation of Iraq.

The early days of the occupation of Iraq-which saw widespread looting and rise of the insurgency-signaled an emergency: foretold that the occupation would fail. However, the Administration wouldn't recognize this, because they were heading into the 2004 Presidential election and believed any acknowledgement of a crisis would reflect negatively on President Bush. Therefore, there was no triage process. Bush's initial response to the failed occupation was denial: First, he blamed the press for negative messages. Then, he claimed to see the light at the end of the tunnel, saying he had access to positive information that the rest of us did not. The President stubbornly continued the same ill-advised policies. And maintained the same dysfunctional team.

Katrina followed this same inept pattern: There was every indication the hurricane was going to cause a state of emergency before it hit the Gulf Coast. Bush failed to acknowledge this and continued his fundraising trip. Even after the hurricane hit land, and the levees broke, Bush and Cheney didn't see this as a problem that affected them. As a consequence, the Administration displayed a dreadful triage process: the head of FEMA, Michael Brown, and his boss, Michael Chertoff, weren't communicating and took contradictory actions. The result was a slow and painfully inadequate emergency response.

In many ways, it's easier to look at Administration failures that pertain to imminent emergencies, because they don't carry the emotional baggage that 9/11, Iraq, and Katrina do. Almost all US economists, and knowledgeable businesspersons, believe that the monstrous Federal debt is a crisis. Indeed, this is one of the few issues where both liberals and conservatives are in agreement. Nonetheless, the Bush Administration refuses to recognize it and, therefore, hasn't initiated a triage process. The President's advisers believe that if the White House acknowledges this emergency, then they will have to propose solutions; they recognize that these have unpleasant political consequences. For example, one way to deal with the budget deficit is to raise taxes, an action Bush has vowed never to take; another would be to dramatically reduce our expenditures in Iraq. Instead of recognizing the looming economic disaster and initiating a triage process, the White House puts out a positive spin: insists that the economy is "doing great," as if this answers all concerns about the debt.

A similar failure of the Bush Administration triage process can be seen with regards to global climate change. The White House refuses to identify global climate change as an emergency and, therefore, hasn't begun the triage process. Rather than make tough decisions, the Administration relies on spin: claims that the scientific community isn't sure about climate change, warns that "premature" action might hurt the economy.

A common thread runs through the Bush Administration response to emergencies: They're more concerned with saving face than they are with solving problems. They ignore America's common good.

As the President's popularity plummets more and more Americans have come to realize that his is the worst Administration in modern times. Every week, political pundits reach for new adjectives to describe White House inadequacy: pig-headed, churlish, and on and on. From here, two words sum up the Bush Administration: venal and dangerous. Venal, because the Bush White House puts their political self-interest above all other considerations. Dangerous, because they are jeopardizing the long-term security of all Americans.
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Bob Burnett is a Berkeley writer. In a previous life he was one of the executive founders of Cisco Systems.
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