Despite George W Bush’s creation of the largest and apparently most useless bureaucracy in recent US history, the ill-named "Homeland Security Department" failed in the trenches to provide anything resembling homeland security. Indeed, it was the absence of that security that shocked and awed an entire nation – and the world at large. We watched in horror as George W Bush and his administration first stumbled, then fell apart completely under the stress of a predictable disaster. That vacuum in US leadership was then publicly punctuated by the meltdown of agencies like FEMA under the inept management of Bush political appointees with no job-specific skills or experience in the positions to which they were appointed.
Hurricanes Katrina and Rita have exposed the ugly underbelly of American culture for the entire world to view. Bloated bodies that could be smelled but not touched for fear of contamination bob to the surface in the backwater aftermath of the storms. The stubborn shortsightedness, contemptuous bigotry and sheer stupidity that have characterized this administration are now oozing out from under the rock of the Bush PR machine for all to view. What was once considered unspeakable is suddenly fair game for debate. Like the waters of Katrina and Rita, the national and international conversation may at long last be finding its level. Let us hope so.
At least one thing is clear with respect to the recent catastrophe: the current administration is way out of its element when it comes to public service. Dealing with a crisis that cannot be fixed by killing, plundering or consuming is anathema to everything it stands for. Thus far the Bush administration’s vision for rescuing the stricken Gulf Coast (and the national economy) has, to put it kindly, been extremely limited. Ideas include such energy-saving strategies as releasing still more oil from US Strategic Petroleum Reserves, gutting environmental laws so corporations can save money, cutting public school hours and suspending labor laws in favor of no-bid contracts for the likes of Halliburton and Bechtel. Other inspirations include lowering taxes (again) for the wealthiest among us whether they want it or not, borrowing more money from China and/or Saudi Arabia, declaring Martial Law for the first time since World War II and promising enough money to everyone concerned to bankrupt the US for generations to come.
Thankfully, the international press with its longer, wider lens, is providing sorely needed perspective. In newspapers across the world, journalists and opinion-makers seem to concur on at least one thing – that hurricanes Katrina and Rita will mark a profound change in the way the US is perceived at home and abroad. Some speak of the American "myth" being shattered by the poverty and racial divisions which they say the disasters revealed. Others compare New Orleans with Iraq; still others say they hope the floods will douse US "arrogance" over its refusal to ratify the Kyoto accord on climate change.
The following is a sampling of global opinion excerpted from the international press:
Nahum Barnea in Israel’s Yediot Aharonot: "Just as 11 September 2001 changed the American agenda from internal matters to foreign policy and the war on terror, so Katrina is liable to take America back to its internal agenda: dealing with the environment, society, and the gaps between whites and blacks and between rich and poor…"
Adli Sadiq in the Palestinian Al-Hayat-al-Jadidah: "After Hurricane Katrina, a new section of the American public is waking up to the wretchedness of the administration’s policies and to the disasters that have hit Americans as a result. Today’s Iraq is worse than yesterday’s, and there are not enough helicopters to tackle the hurricane. Bush and his administration will be judged by history."
Yildirim Turker in Turkey’s Radikal: "…New Orleans was below sea level even before drilling for oil began…there is no certain proof that the increase in the mean global temperature is a consequence of the emission of so-called greenhouse gases…the federal government has no specific responsibility for the post-hurricane chaos."
Russia’s Komsomolskaya Pravda: "…[Russian] Emergencies Ministry planes have been under starter’s orders for several days. But the go-ahead from the other side of the ocean never came. It leads you to think: Is Washington afraid of having US citizens rescued by people who are not flying the stars and stripes? Are they trying to preserve the prestige of a state that does not take easily to accepting aid from a "third-world" country? But isn’t the saving of human life more important than PR or ideological considerations?"
France’s Le Progresa: "Katrina has shown that the emperor has no clothes. The world’s superpower is powerless when confronted with nature’s fury…"
Editorial in Media Indonesia: "The superpower United States has finally succumbed to nature’s wrath. The US must eventually admit that it is unable to deal with the victims itself. Something has changed: Hurricane Katrina has destroyed some of the US’s arrogance…"
South Africa’s Star: "The death and destruction wrought by Hurricane Katrina also revealed the racial fissures in American society. Most of the hapless survivors who filled New Orleans’ Superdome were black. Bush’s other weaknesses are his poor environment record and his management of the US economy."
Zimbabwe’s Heralda: "…All that Bush has done so far is to issue threats against the victims, and deploying trigger-happy American troops – fresh from abusing Iraqi prisoners – to go and "restore order…"
Australia’s The Age: "President Bush is increasingly seen as out of touch with ordinary people and with reality on the ground – in New Orleans and Iraq – and also on issues such as climate change. The president and, by association, Republicans are highly vulnerable for the first time in years…"
Singapore’s The Straits Times: "The dead are only beginning to be gathered up. In Aceh and Thailand’s beach resorts, those killed by the tsunami last December received the due respect of swift recovery, followed by identification. New Orleans people will not let Mr. Bush forget this."
Mexico’s El Universal: "The slowness with which the USA’s federal emergency services have joined the rescue operation has already generated great political tension…There is no doubt that the lack of well-timed responses to assist the population will have political costs for…Bush’s Republican Party…"
Colombia’s El Colombiano: "It is now urgent that the world’s leaders take heed of nature’s warning, look at the evidence and realize that the climate, on a global scale, is changing…"
Argentina’s Clarin: "Katrina had more than the power of the wind and water because now when they have subsided it can still reveal the emptiness of an era, one that is represented by President George W Bush more than anyone…"
Spain’s El Pais: "Up until Monday, Bush was the president of the war in Iraq and 9/11. Today there are few doubts that he will also pass into history as the president who didn’t know how to prevent the destruction of New Orleans and who abandoned its inhabitants to their fate for days…"
France’s Liberation: "…a cruel lack of leadership at a time when this second major shock for 21st century America is adding to the crisis of confidence for the world’s leading power and to international disorder…As with 9/11, the country is displaying its vulnerability to the eyes of the world…"
China’s Renmin Wanga; "If the US could shift part of its astronomical military spending to counter-terrorism, guarding against natural disasters, epidemic disease control and other aspects, then the 9/11 attack, Hurricane Katrina, the spread of Aids and other tragedies could be avoided or mitigated…"
Switzerland’s Le Temps: "The sea walls would not have burst in New Orleans if the funds meant for strengthening them had not been cut to help the war effort in Iraq and the war on terror…rescue work would have been more effective if a section of National Guard from the areas affected had not been sent to Baghdad and Kabul…would George Bush have left his holiday ranch more quickly if the disaster had not first struck the most disadvantaged populations of the black south?"
Ireland’s The Irish Times: "This is a defining moment for Mr Bush, just as much as 9/11 was. So far his reputation for prompt and firm crisis management has fallen far short of what is required…"
Saudi Arabia’s Saudi Gazette: "The episode illustrates that when the normal day-to-day activity of society disintegrates, the collapse of civilization is only a few paces behind. We all walk on the edge of the abyss…"
Musib Na’imi in Iran’s Al-Vefagh: "About 10,000 US National Guard troops were deployed [in New Orleans] and were granted the authority to fire at and kill whom they wanted, upon the pretext of restoring order. This decision is an indication of the US administration’s militarist mentality, which regards killing as the only way to control even its own citizens…"
Samih Sa’ab in Lebanon’s Al-Nahar: "The destruction caused by Hurricane Katrina… has proved that even the No 1 superpower in the world is helpless in facing nature’s ‘terrorism’."
Pakistan’s The Nation: "…the government of the world’s richest nation defied the general expectation that at the first sign of the storm it would muster an armada of ships, boats and helicopters for the rescue operation. For nearly three days it sat smugly apathetic to the people’s plight, their need for food, medicine and other basic necessities…"
Ambrose Murunga in Kenya’s Daily Nation: "My first reaction when television images of the survivors of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans came through the channels was that the producers must be showing the wrong clip. The images, and even the disproportionately high number of visibly impoverished blacks among the refugees, could easily have been a re-enactment of a scene from the pigeonholed African continent…"
Stephan Hebel in Germany’s Frankfurter Allgemeine: "Bush’s people will say that the moment of need and willingness to help should not be poisoned by political maneuvers. Maybe this will serve them well enough in a media world where images of victims and heroes are valued more highly than complex background. But then the lie would have won – against the desire to understand things so as to avoid them…"
Jean-Pierre Aussant in France’s Figaro: "This tragic incident reminds us that the United States has refused to ratify the Kyoto accords. Let’s hope the US can from now on stop ignoring the rest of the world. If you want to run things, you must first lead by example…"
Yildirim Turker in Turkey’s Radikal: "The biggest power of the world is rising over poor black corpses. We are witnessing the collapse of the American myth. In terms of the USA’s relationship with itself and the world, Hurricane Katrina seems to leave its mark on our century as an extraordinary turning point."
Editorial in Iran’s Siyasat-e-Ruz: "Hurricane Katrina has proved that America cannot solve its internal problems and is incapable of facing these kinds of natural disasters, so it cannot bring peace and democracy to other parts of the world…"
Nick Reimer in Germany’s die tageszeitung: "New Orleans has already become a symbol: never before in human history has a natural disaster been predicted in such exact detail. Despite this, the prediction had no effect. It’s as if mankind has lost the power to correct its own mistakes: In New Orleans, it slid into catastrophe submissively and with eyes wide open. Climate change has already arrived…"
Shen Dingli in China’s Dongfang Zaobao: "Katrina is testing the US. Katrina is also creating an opportunity for world unity. Cuba and North Korea’s offer of sympathy and aid to the US could also result in some profound thinking in the US…"
Xiong Shu Li in Malaysia’s Sin Chew Jit Poh: "Co-operation to reduce greenhouse gas emissions can no longer be delayed, but there are still countries – including the US – which still do not take the issue seriously. However, faced with global disasters, all countries are in the same boat. The US hurricane disaster is a "modern revelation", and all countries of the world including the US should be aware of this."
Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez in El Nacional: "…That is the model they want to sell us. Racial segregation…the rich were able to leave, the poor were left, enduring the hurricane. It is capitalism, in its extreme individualist phase."
In a rarefied moment of convergence, the international media shines its broad spotlight into the darkest corners of American culture and through that lens the world is seeing a graphic depiction of itself. It is an old story with new focus on a country that claimed to be better. This time it is the story of America; but a wider lens reveals that it is the story of invisible people everywhere. They are mostly people of color, the very young, the very old, the poor, the elderly and infirmed. They are the people who now emerge from the waters left by Katrina and Rita. Some are alive and some are dead. Some still clinging to life are put into morgues alongside the dead. They too are now dead. They tell us the truth about ourselves – as individuals, as a nation, as a world. Staring into the eye of this particular storm we see our own reflection and we are humbled and frightened by what we have seen. If we are to alter that reflection – and the course of global history – American citizens will need to listen more carefully to our global counterparts. We will need to begin viewing ourselves and our leaders through a wider lens, one that more accurately reflects who in the world we are.
Sandy Leon Vest is a renewable energy activist and journalist, currently freelancing for progressive publications including www.towardfreedom.com, www.sfindymedia.org, and www.coastalpost.com (published in her home town in Marin County). Her work has been distributed nationally and internationally through the National Radio Project in Oakland and she has produced news and public affairs programming for public and community radio, including KPFA, in Berkeley, KPFK in Los Angeles and KWMR in Marin County.