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FEMA's Michael Brown Watches As Homeland Security Chief Chertoff Relieves Him; Brown's Replacement, Coast Guard Vice Admiral Thad Allen
—BBC NEWS VIDEO: FEMA Director Michael Brown Sent Back to Washington, September 9, 00:03:00

Katrina Delivers 9-11 Sized Shock to American Foreign Policy

By exposing Washington’s inability to protect Americans at home, Katrina has called into question not only George W. Bush’s capacity to lead, but his entire post-September 11 strategy. According to this op-ed article from France’s Le Monde, the U.S. President may yet fulfill his original campaign promise to pursue a more ‘humble’ foreign policy.

By Daniel Vernet

September 9, 2005

Original Article (French)    

President Bush Praises Michael Brown Last Week

Four years after the attacks of September 11, 2001 which so shook up American foreign policy, will Hurricane Katrina also have a fundamental effect, but in the opposite direction?

It is undoubtedly too early to answer this question, but it is not too early to ask it. Before September 11, George W. Bush advocated a "humble" foreign policy. Afterwards, he launched, dragging his allies with him, a crusade against Middle Eastern dictatorships, believing that the security of the United States would best be defended by the war against terrorism and its offshoots.

The magnitude of the catastrophe in the southern United States, the high number of victims, the clear negligence of the authorities, a negligence often due to a lack of means, all indicate that Katrina could prompt the American public and the administration to rethink their priorities and to return to a policy centered more on domestic problems and the immediate needs of its citizens, including its security needs.

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The debate started very pragmatically on the other side of the Atlantic. Wouldn’t the human and material resources deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan, the sums spent on combating the elusive enemy, have been better used to anticipate this catastrophe and bring aid to the victims?

Then comes a second question: what is the purpose of wanting to guarantee the security of Americans by fighting in Iraq, even by attempting to install democracy, if at the same time it’s not possible to protect them against clearly natural uncertainties, the consequences of which should be manageable and humane?

The questioning is all the more aggressive because even before the crises, President Bush’s popularity was already at its lowest level ever. Doubts about the efficiency of the war in Iraq and the pertinence of his strategy have called into question his entire post September 11 policy.

A majority of Americans no longer believe their president when he boasts of successes in the war on terrorism or progress in stabilizing Iraq. The images they see every night on their TV screens contradict this apparent optimism and push them to believe that there has been degradation in the situation.

The contradictory statements heard about the duration of the presence of American troops in Iraq are not reassuring. While the leadership in Washington explain that they are currently preparing to substitute Iraqi forces for American and that they won’t stay one day longer than necessary, they also say that talking of withdrawal would encourage the terrorists to strengthen their activity.

At the end of August, George W. Bush, speaking in front of National Guard soldiers and their families, said: "As long as I am president, we will stay, we will fight and we will win the war against terror." It is for this reason that his neoconservative friends like him so much. As a war leader. "The success of the Bush administration depends on his success as commander in chief," wrote William Kristol in the Weekly Standard. The affirmation rings as much like an exhortation as it does as a statement. Though George W. Bush has adopted the language of the neoconservatives, the disappointments of his Iraq policy have caused him to be more cautious and less dogmatic, and since the beginning of his second term, to lead a more pragmatic diplomacy under the influence of Condoleezza Rice.

Condoleezza Rice: a Moderating Influence?

The speech before the National Guard was given before Hurricane Katrina hit. This declaration was a response, not only to the president’s traditional opponents who criticize his involvement in Iraq, but also to Republican elected officials, senators and members of the House, who are starting to worry about the consequences of the president’s lack of popularity on the November, 2006 midterm elections. They would, at the very least, like to have some plan for the withdrawal of American troops from Iraq before they have to face the voters.

The catastrophe in the southern states will not help in this regard. There too, the president’s friends would like to have seen him show evidence of leadership and to behave like the commander in chief in an emergency. The procrastination of the early days, the slow response, the disorganization of public officials, even if they don’t all depend on the federal government, do not reflect favorably on an administration that seems to have other priorities.

All of this argues in favor of a reexamining the relationship between domestic and foreign policy. It will perhaps not take place before the next presidential election in 2008. George W. Bush has too closely linked his fate to an ideologically messianic and militarily interventionist fight against terrorism to imagine changing direction again.


But Hurricane Katrina could signal the end of a period of American foreign policy, characterized by what political scientist Walter Russel Mead calls a mix of "Jacksonianism" and "Wilsonianism." That is to say, the alliance of the nationalists who wage war when America’s vital interests are at stake and the internationalists who push for democracy and American values throughout the world. Over the last few years, this strange alliance, encouraged by the attacks of September 11, influenced the tone of international action by the United States. Mead contrasts them with the "Hamiltonians," named after George Washington’s finance minister, who relied on "soft commerce," as Montesquieu said, to establish the power of the United States, and the "Jeffersonians," whose priority was ensuring American democracy in a hostile environment, without going so far as to chase demons all over the world.

Pres. Andrew Jackson; Pres. Woodrow Wilson; Treasury Sec. Alexander Hamilton; Pres. Thomas Jefferson

Clearly, American policy has never exactly fulfilled one or the other of these categories. It has always been the result of forces far more in conflict than the institutions that contributed to these definitions. It is, nevertheless, not even possible to single out one dominant theme.

The parallels between bin Laden and Katrina are limited. The head of al-Qaeda deliberately attacked Americans in the heart of their society; the hurricane is a natural phenomenon that they know well, even though the inefficiency of the public authorities added to the disaster. However, the former shed light on the external vulnerability of America, the latter on its internal fragility.

After having spent several years fighting the threat from outside, Americans could be led, under the influence of other leaders, to attack the domestic weaknesses revealed by the forces of nature, so as not to give the rest of the world the image of a superpower that is hiding pockets of the Third World within itself. In other words, the "Jeffersonians" should pick up their heads in the political debate, whether they are traditional Republicans or Democrats.

It would not be a return to any sort of isolationism, which in a globalized world is utterly untenable. But by returning to the principle of "Jeffersonianism," the United States better serves the cause of universal democracy by creating an example to follow rather than by exporting a model.

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