Katrina: Political Issues Slowed Federal Intervention

One reason federal troops did not arrive in New Orleans faster in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina was fear of the way seizing control of the situation from an incompetent, hysterical, female Democrat governor might have been perceived.

Political Issues Snarled Plans for Troop Aid (NYT)

As New Orleans descended into chaos last week and Louisiana’s governor asked for 40,000 soldiers, President Bush’s senior advisers debated whether the president should speed the arrival of active-duty troops by seizing control of the hurricane relief mission from the governor. For reasons of practicality and politics, officials at the Justice Department and the Pentagon, and then at the White House, decided not to urge Mr. Bush to take command of the effort. Instead, the Washington officials decided to rely on the growing number of National Guard personnel flowing into Louisiana, who were under Gov. Kathleen Babineaux Blanco’s control.

[…]

As criticism of the response to Hurricane Katrina has mounted, one of the most pointed questions has been why more troops were not available more quickly to restore order and offer aid. Interviews with officials in Washington and Louisiana show that as the situation grew worse, they were wrangling with questions of federal/state authority, weighing the realities of military logistics and perhaps talking past each other in the crisis.

To seize control of the mission, Mr. Bush would have had to invoke the Insurrection Act, which allows the president in times of unrest to command active-duty forces into the states to perform law enforcement duties. But decision makers in Washington felt certain that Ms. Blanco would have resisted surrendering control, as Bush administration officials believe would have been required to deploy active-duty combat forces before law and order had been re-established. While combat troops can conduct relief missions without the legal authority of the Insurrection Act, Pentagon and military officials say that no active-duty forces could have been sent into the chaos of New Orleans on Wednesday or Thursday without confronting law-and-order challenges.

But just as important to the administration were worries about the message that would have been sent by a president ousting a Southern governor of another party from command of her National Guard, according to administration, Pentagon and Justice Department officials. “Can you imagine how it would have been perceived if a president of the United States of one party had pre-emptively taken from the female governor of another party the command and control of her forces, unless the security situation made it completely clear that she was unable to effectively execute her command authority and that lawlessness was the inevitable result?” asked one senior administration official, who spoke anonymously because the talks were confidential.

Officials in Louisiana agree that the governor would not have given up control over National Guard troops in her state as would have been required to send large numbers of active-duty soldiers into the area. But they also say they were desperate and would have welcomed assistance by active-duty soldiers.

“I need everything you have got,” Ms. Blanco said she told Mr. Bush last Monday, after the storm hit. In an interview, she acknowledged that she did not specify what sorts of soldiers. “Nobody told me that I had to request that,” Ms. Blanco said. “I thought that I had requested everything they had. We were living in a war zone by then.”

Andrew Sullivan writes,

Then there’s this caveat in the anonymous quote: “unless the security situation made it completely clear that she was unable to effectively execute her command authority and that lawlessness was the inevitable result.” Wasn’t that completely clear to many at that point? The first responders were overwhelmed and these politicians were worrying about gender issues and partisan politics? Given the fact that thousands of lives were at stake, “perception” is not or surely should not be an issue. Nor should petty fights over jurisdiction or legal wrangling. Nor should the relative incompetence of governor Blanco. If she was incompetent, then that’s all the more reason for Bush to have over-ruled her.

While I had strong suspicions of Blanco’s incompetence from the moment I saw her first press conference on the Saturday afternoon before the hurricane, the fact of the matter is that the people of Louisiana elected her governor. Now, granted, the people of Louisiana are Exhibit 1 in the case against popular sovereignty but we live in a federal system where states and localities have near-autonomous power over these matters.

Kevin Aylward is offering $50 to the winner of the “Write That Daily Kos/Atrios Post” contest:

For the sake of your post assume that Bush did invoke the Insurrection Act and seized control of the Louisiana National Guard. Your assignment is to describe that historic takeover in the style of either Kos or Atrios.

We’re a nation of laws and the law is pretty clear: the United States military does not assume domestic police powers under any but the most extraordinary circumstances. That line has fuzzied in the era of the Total Force, since the National Guard, while technically under the control of the governors of the several states, is fully integrated into the United States armed forces. Still, legal fictions have always been with us and observed.

This isn’t an election year but partisan political concerns are, sadly, always there. Certainly, congressional Democrats have not been shy about trying to score political points. Still, a president has to be above that during times of national emergency. To the extent he was worried about “perceptions” in the partisan sense, shame on him.

That said, the “perception” issue is always important in politics. Right now, the perception is that the early response to Katrina was inadequate. But had the president gone in and seized control of Louisiana over the objections of the governor, we’d have people crying out for impeachment. Goodness knows, they’ve come for much less.

FILED UNDER: General
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is a Security Studies professor at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. ICallMasICM says:

    This is one of the few times I agree with Mr. Sullivan. Bush should have taken control of the situation after the first 5 minutes of talking to Nagin or Blanco. They were unfit and unable to take control and Bush should have.

  2. Jonathan says:

    I agree, Nagin and Blanco are far too emotionally attached to the disaster to have been effective. But, whats done is done.

  3. Lurking Observer says:

    I keep wondering how many of the folks who believe that Bush should have just pushed the local authorities aside and imposed federal rule over an entire state (or even just the city and environs of New Orleans) are also supporters of DC statehood?

    In particular, given the disastrous “leadership” under Marion “the b***h set me up!” Barry, does that mean that FedGov has been justified in not granting DC the full rights and responsibilities of state-hood?

    Or are the taxpayers and voters of Louisiana somehow different?

  4. Steve Verdon says:

    This isn’t an election year but partisan political concerns are, sadly, always there. Certainly, congressional Democrats have not been shy about trying to score political points. Still, a president has to be above that during times of national emergency. To the extent he was worried about “perceptions” in the partisan sense, shame on him.

    You forgot to say shame on the Democrats for not having the common decency to not try and exploit such a situation. But then again expecting common decency in politics is obviously expecting too much.

  5. spencer says:

    so the President and his staff were more concerned with appearance then doing their job?

    This is putting the whole thing in a plus/minus situation as if their were only the two extreme alternatives. There were many possible ways to work it out and as demonstrated by events. This statement in and of it self demonstrates that the president dithered for days before sending in the troops.

    This is strictly a case of spin to shift blame.

  6. JohnG says:

    What do you think the ‘perception’ to Bush’s response would be 50 years from now, if a president wants to usurp the powers of a governor of the opposing party for not doing what that president wants?

  7. NCbob says:

    I think this is a golden opportunity for us to get out of Iraq right now. Since we clearly need the manpower and the money we are spending on Iraq for reconstruction of the Gulf Coast, why not just say, darn, we really wanted to “stay the course” but, shucks, we had this little hurricane thing and we just can’t stretch and do both at the same time. So, we kinda gotta boogey on home and take care of our own first. We’ll be back later if we need to. TTFN.

    Two problems solved at once. Especially the how the heck to get out of Iraq problem which was clearly the biggest one.

    If only our leaders had the courage to seize this opportunity!