Patrick Cockburn: A fatal detachment from reality... how Bush's failures in Iraq and New Orleans are linked

Deal with disaster by denying it has occurred. Don't fire anybody - it's an admission of failure

The Independent

Published: 11 September 2005

Like most journalists in Baghdad I keep a television on with the sound off in the corner of my hotel room. When I see out of the corner of my eye menacing-looking American soldiers with guns cocked hammering on the door of a house I suspect it it something to do with Iraq and turn the sound up.

Not any more. Since the levees broke in New Orleans images of the disaster there look very like scenes I have got used to in Baghdad. The helicopters overhead, the deployment of great military force with uncertain purpose, the endless press conferences by politicians, officials and soldiers.

Most glaring are the parallels between the way the US administration behaved in Iraq after the overthrow of Saddam Hussein and their reaction to the devastating results of Hurricane Katrina. In both cases there was the same lack of preparation. Reports on the inadequacy of the levees in New Orleans were disregarded. Before the war the State Department prepared voluminous studies on what the US should do in Iraq after the war only to see its work contemptuously ignored by the Pentagon.

When Baghdad was looted, destroying the infrastructure of the state, US troops stood by without orders to stop it. The White House and the Pentagon seemed unable to take on board what everybody else could see on television. Exactly the same myopia appears to have prevented the administration from being able to mobilise buses, doctors and police to go to New Orleans.

Many governments believe their own propaganda but few have been as loath as the present US administration to abandon their own vision of what should be happening in order to cope with what has really occurred.

I used to go to military press conferences in the convention centre in the Green Zone in Baghdad where generals would repeat day after day that the resistance was the work of the remnants of Saddam's regime and some foreign fighters. Soon these few pathetic survivors of the old regime would be extinguished.

Sometimes the number of attacks on US troops was encouragingly on the decrease. Once I was talking to US sappers camped near Fallujah with the lethal job of detecting roadside bombs. I asked them why, since war seemed to be raging around us, the number of violent incidents should be going down. They grinned and admitted that reporting attacks was a bureaucratic hassle and they had learned that their generals did not want to see evidence that the war was escalating.

Again and again in New Orleans, as in Baghdad, the White House seems to be fatally detached from reality. In both places there is an inability to take on board bad news. A politically moderate Iraqi businessmen told me this week how he'd met a delegation of neo-conservatives from the Heritage Foundation in Washington at the time of the elections in Iraq.

He explained to them that he would not vote because the poll would be just an ethnic or sectarian headcount of Kurds, Shia and Sunni which would increase hostility between communities. The war would get worse. My friend recalled that as he tried to explain the reality of Iraq to these Republican true believers, their faces became steadily more hostile. "They really were people who saw any disagreement with Bush as a sign of hostility to the US," he reflected sadly.

Some of common failings in Iraq and Louisiana stem from the personality of President George Bush. There is the inability to welcome differing opinions or accept bad news. There is the refusal to fire or demote subordinates who have demonstrably failed in their jobs. It is astonishing to see a beaming Donald Rumsfeld presiding with folksy charm over press conferences explaining away the military's failings in New Orleans just as he once used to do when things fell apart in Iraq.

Of course, in the short term these are not bad tactics. Deal with disaster by denying it has occurred. Don't fire anybody important; this would be an admission of failure. Claim that the media are exaggerating ill tidings and concealing the good news.

Ironically, from April 2004 it was easy for Washington to say that all was going relatively well in Iraq because, so dangerous had the country become, it was not possible for camera crews or print journalists to disprove the administration's claim that much of Iraq is at peace.

But not everything can be attributed to Bush. Looking at the US presence in Iraq over the past two and a half years, there appears to be something dysfunctional in the US military and political machine as a whole.

Take the US army. It has 135,000 troops here. Every day we see its patrols rumble down the streets. But it seems unable to cope with as simple a device as the roadside bomb which has been used against military transport since the IRA was attacking British convoys in Ireland in 1920-21. The same US sappers who told me about not reporting insurgent attacks said that only with great difficulty had they been able to extract from the army a dog-eared manual on booby traps written during the Vietnam war. A reason was that the army was loath to admit that there was nothing in common between the war in Iraq and Vietnam.

A striking feature of Baghdad is that for all the billions of dollars spent here since the fall of Saddam there is hardly a new building under construction. Nobody knows what happened to the money, vastly greater than that supposedly purloined by Saddam under UN sanctions which has been so assiduously investigated in New York. Most of Baghdad is getting four hours of electricity blackout and two hours' erratic supply before the cuts begin again.

It is very difficult to find out where the money went in Iraq. (Various sympathetic Iraqi politicians pointed out to me that anybody who tried to do so was not going to live very long.) Much more is known about where it went in New Orleans. Political clout was more important than actual need. At the very point on the Industrial Canal where Hurricane Katrina breached a vital levee, the Army Corps of Engineers was building a $748 lock deemed by everybody else as wholly unnecessary. The same probably happened here.

Not all the failings of the US army and government are new. It is worth looking at Norman Lewis's wonderful Naples 44 to see how the US army in Italy in the Second World War did not behave so very differently - and certainly no more honestly - than it did in Baghdad 60 years later.

A difference between disaster in Iraq and in New Orleans is that here it is much easier to conceal the truth. Spurious turning points can be invented or exaggerated: Iraqis do not believe it. I asked an old friend, a businessman, in the past a beacon of optimism, why there was so much corruption. He said resignedly: "It is natural to grab anything of value when you know the ship is sinking and, believe me, Iraqis think their country is going down."