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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

New Orleans Floundering in Lake George

Samuel Huntington has called it the Lippmann Gap, echoing the American journalist Walter Lippmann in 1943: "Foreign policy consists in bringing into balance, with a comfortable surplus of power in reserve, the nation's commitments and the nation's power." The historian Paul Kennedy has another name for it: "Imperial overextension." Whatever you call this dangerous disease, the symptoms are clear in the United States.

Shortly after U.S. President George W. Bush was inaugurated and before the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the Federal Emergency Management Agency warned of a terrorist attack on New York City, a hurricane flooding New Orleans and a San Francisco earthquake. The Bush administration was instead focused on its own priority: Iraq.

Day after day, Bush and his allies in the Republican-majority Congress have slashed federal spending for flood control in southeast Louisiana by half and funds for work at Lake Pontchartrain by almost two-thirds. From 2003, funds authorized for the Southeast Louisiana Urban Flood Control Project were diverted to pay for the war in Iraq.

Earlier this year, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers requested $27 million to repair the levees to protect them from hurricanes. Bush sought to cut the amount to $3.9 million and also proposed reducing spending to prevent flooding from $78 million to $30 million. Eventually the Republican Congress passed $5.7 million and $36.5 million, respectively. The New Orleans Times-Picayune published numerous articles warning that the war in Iraq was taking money away from hurricane protection on the Gulf Coast.

With U.S. forces divided between the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and army recruitment numbers plunging, the Bush administration, in addition to hiring private contractors, was forced to mobilize National Guard reserves overseas. When Katrina struck, tens of thousands of National Guard soldiers were in Iraq.

At the same time, America's long border with Mexico has gone largely unprotected. Bush's Justice Department claims that suspected American terrorist Jose Padilla and an accomplice planned to enter the United States through Mexico and blow up buildings in New York and other cities. Mohammed Junaid Babar, an alleged al-Qaeda agent linked with plots against London, has told U.S. investigators of a plan to bring terrorists into the United States from Mexico.

On Dec. 17, 2004, Bush signed the National Intelligence Reform Act, which required the addition of 10,000 border patrol agents beginning in 2006. In his February 2005 budget, however, Bush authorized funds for only 210 new border agents. Last month, the Democratic governors of Arizona and New Mexico asked for federal disaster relief to help deal with border chaos.

The horror in New Orleans and along the Gulf Coast, and the chaos along the U.S.-Mexico border, join anarchy in Afghanistan and Iraq as proof of the bankruptcy of the Bush doctrine. Some of Bush's neoconservative strategists who wanted a crusade for U.S. hegemony in the Middle East and the world might have been willing to pay for it with higher taxes. But Bush's political base is united by a crusade to cut taxes. The attempt to establish American global hegemony without paying for it was a disaster -- actually, several disasters -- waiting to happen.

If Bush had not sacrificed border security to pay for the war in Iraq, the Mexican border might be under control. If Bush had not diverted so many National Guard units to Iraq, disaster relief following Hurricane Katrina would have been swifter and more effective. And if the war in Iraq had not caused the Bush administration to raid money for the New Orleans levees, this big port city might not be a corpse-filled cesspool.

Supporters of the war in Iraq predicted that the dominoes would fall in the Middle East. Instead, the dominoes are falling across America.

This comment by Michael Lind, Whitehead Senior Fellow at the New America Foundation, appeared in a longer form in the Financial Times.

By Robert Scheer

What the world has witnessed this past week is an image of poverty and social disarray that tears away the affluent mask of the United States.

Instead of the much-celebrated U.S. can-do machine that promises to bring freedom and prosperity to less fortunate people abroad, Americans have seen a callous official incompetence that puts even Third World rulers to shame. The well-reported litany of mistakes by the Bush administration in failing to prevent and respond to Katrina's destruction grew longer with each hour's grim revelation from the streets of an apocalyptic New Orleans.

Yet the problem is much deeper. For half a century, free-market purists have to great effect denigrated the essential role that modern government performs as some terrible liberal plot. Thus, the symbolism of New Orleans' flooding is tragically apt: President Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal and Louisiana Governor Huey Long's ambitious populist reforms in the 1930s eased Louisiana out of feudalism and toward modernity; the Reagan revolution and the callousness of both Bush administrations have sent them back toward the abyss.

Levee improvements were deferred in recent years even after congressional approval, reportedly prompting Environmental Protection Agency staffers to dub flooded New Orleans "Lake George." None of this is an oversight, nor is it simple incompetence. It is the result of a campaign by most Republicans and too many Democrats to systematically vilify the role of government in American life. Manipulative politicians have convinced lower- and middle-class whites that their own economic pains were caused by quasi-socialist government policies that aid only poor brown and black people, even as corporate profits and CEO salaries soared.

For decades, Americans have seen social services in steady, steep decline in the face of tax cuts and rising military spending. But it is a false economy. It will certainly cost vastly more to save New Orleans than it would have to protect it in the first place. And, although the wealthy can soften the blow of this national decline, others, like the 150,000 people living below the poverty line in the Katrina damage area, are left exposed.

Watching on television the stark vulnerability of a permanent underclass of African-Americans living in New Orleans ghettos is terrifying. It should be remembered, however, that even when hurricanes are not threatening their lives and sanity, they live in rotting housing complexes, attend embarrassingly ill-equipped public schools and, lacking adequate police protection, are frequently terrorized by unemployed, uneducated young men.

The public suffering of these desperate Americans is a symbol for a nation that is becoming progressively poorer under the leadership of the party of Big Business. As Katrina was making its devastating landfall, the U.S. Census Bureau released new figures that show that since 1999, the income of the poorest fifth of Americans has dropped 8.7 percent in inflation-adjusted dollars. Last year alone, 1.1 million were added to the 36 million already on the poverty rolls.

These are people who have long since been abandoned to their fate. Despite the deep religiosity of the Gulf States and the United States in general, it is the gods of greed that seem to rule. Case in point: The crucial New Orleans marshland that absorbs excess water during storms has been greatly denuded by rampant commercial development allowed by a deregulation-crazy culture that favors a quick buck over long-term community benefits.

Given all this, it is no surprise that America's leaders, from the White House on down, haven't done right by the people of New Orleans and the rest of the region. Fact is, most of them, and especially the president, just don't care about the people who can't afford to attend political fundraisers or pay for high-priced lobbyists. No, these folks are supposed to be cruising on the rising tide of a booming, unregulated economy that floats all boats.

They were left floating all right.

Robert Scheer is a columnist at the Los Angeles Times, where this comment first appeared.