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WHAT WE THINK
Leaving a trail of disasters from Iraq to New Orleans:
Is Bush on the ropes?

September 23, 2005 | Page 3

FROM IRAQ to New Orleans, the Bush administration has left a trail of disasters in its wake. Has the political tide finally turned against it?

A New York Times/CBS poll released last week found that only 35 percent of people said they had confidence in Bush's ability to make the right decisions about the Iraq war. Only 44 percent approved of his handling of the disaster on the Gulf Coast.

The two issues are connected. The administration's lies to justify the invasion of Iraq--from the supposed "weapons of mass destruction" and Saddam Hussein's supposed links to September 11 to the claim that U.S. soldiers would be welcomed as liberators--have all unraveled one by one over several years.

But after Hurricane Katrina, the administration stands exposed as never before--especially in its contempt for African Americans and the poor. As tens of thousands of New Orleans residents were trapped in their homes by the floods or herded into the nightmare of the Superdome, the federal government appeared not only incapable of handling the crisis, but completely disinterested.

Last week, the administration had to go into damage control mode. Federal Emergency Management Agency Director Michael Brown resigned, and Bush gave a prime-time TV speech to promise that "armies of compassion" will rebuild the city. Bush and the Republicans have already okayed $50 billion for relief and reconstruction, and they say that more funds are in the pipeline.

The money earmarked for "reconstruction" could create decent jobs and build much-needed schools and housing for working-class and poor New Orleans residents.

But it won't if the administration and its favored business cronies get their way. Already, Halliburton, Fluor and Bechtel are cashing in on various reconstruction contracts, and the New Orleans business elite is determined that the city will be rebuilt as a playground for the rich.

All kinds of items on the right-wing agenda--from school vouchers to suspending the Davis-Bacon Act that requires federal contractors to pay the prevailing wage--are being pushed as "emergency" measures. And the administration has no intention of paying for reconstruction by reducing spending on the military or suspending its tax breaks for the rich.

Instead, they'll try to take the money from other programs that workers and poor depend on. And they'll succeed if an opposition doesn't arise to stop them.

This is important to bear in mind--because despite plummeting approval ratings all year, the Bush administration has continued to get away with almost everything it set out to accomplish.

John Robert's confirmation as the next chief justice of the Supreme Court looks like a done deal--with women's right to choose hanging in the balance. Earlier this year, the administration got the bankruptcy bill through Congress, along with the Central American Free Trade Agreement and pro-corporation tort reform.

In the name of the "war on terrorism," the Bush administration has shredded civil liberties and the rights of Arabs and Muslims. And despite mass questioning of the war, no voice in the political mainstream has yet taken a real stand against the occupation.

The main reason that the administration has continued to get tick off points on its agenda is that the so-called "opposition" in Washington--the Democratic Party--has been so timid.

Throughout the invasion and occupation of Iraq, party leaders--including the supposed "antiwar" Democrat, Howard Dean--differed only on tactics, not on the project of using U.S. military power in Iraq. After promising to fight for a woman's right to choose, the Democrats caved without a fight on the Roberts nomination.

And--some heated rhetoric aside--they haven't proposed an alternative to the administration colossal failure following Katrina. Indeed, when Bush announced that tens of billions would have to be spent to rebuild New Orleans, "fiscally responsible" Democrats were first to demand to know where the money would come from.

As Margaret Kimberley wrote in the Black Commentator, "Republicans won't suffer when Bush is unable and unwilling to help thousands of Americans suffering from a natural disaster...They won't suffer no matter what they do because the Democrats are impotent...the Dems are like New Orleans, under water, engulfed by debris, and unable to answer pleas for help."

The truth is that the Democrats have more in common with the Republicans than they would have you to believe. Both parties have presided over the decades-long attack on government spending that set the stage for the disaster, as author Ted Steinberg wrote in the Chronicle of Higher Education.

"What form the post-disaster rebuilding of America's Gulf Coast region will take remains to be seen," Steinberg wrote. "But this much is clear: Those poor people who had to suffer through the stench, the heat and the overflowing toilets were victims of a way of thinking that goes back 25 years. Neoliberalism is a philosophy that has been shared by Republicans and Democrats alike (which is, by the way, why I'm not entirely convinced by those who argue that this kind of mistreatment would not have happened under a Kerry administration), and it was the root cause behind the failed evacuation."

As Steinberg concludes, "[B]lind faith in the free market and private enterprise, coupled with the brutal downsizing of the public sector, and a very explicit pattern of denial in the face of impending natural calamity, help explain why America's most vulnerable saw their lives washed out to sea."

This record is important to remember, because many leading voices of the antiwar movement continue to put a central focus on working with congressional Democrats. This has meant settling for watered-down proposals that the politicians are prepared to accept.

For instance, the antiwar group United for Peace and Justice (UFPJ) hailed legislation proposed by Democratic Rep. Lynn Woolsey that calls on the Bush administration to "develop and implement a plan to begin the immediate withdrawal of United States Armed Forces from Iraq."

The tortured wording was carefully drafted to be far from UFPJ's own stated position in favor of troops out now--so that supporters of the Woolsey amendment couldn't be accused of wanting to "cut and run" from Iraq. As Woolsey herself said at a February press conference, "We must play a role in facilitating their transition to stable democracy"--similar rhetoric to what you hear from Bush administration officials.

Holding up Woolsey's compromised proposal--which is far from having the support of the bulk of congressional Democrats--as a victory for the antiwar movement accepts the same logic that confined our struggle during the 2004 presidential election. All national antiwar protests--excepting one mobilization specifically against the Republican National Convention--were suspended during the elections so that antiwar movement leaders could devote their energy to getting "anybody but Bush" into office, even if that candidate, John Kerry, was pro-occupation and pro-war.

With the twisted priorities of the Bush administration exposed on so many levels, we have a big opportunity to build opposition to Washington's right-wing agenda at the grassroots.

The response to Hurricane Katrina was instructive. Thousands immediately went into action to try to help, creating a substantial unofficial relief effort, organized in spite of the government's incompetence. At the same time, these same people and many others responded politically, linking their opposition to the war on Iraq with the government's inaction.

Activists like Cindy Sheehan, who took her Bring Them Home Now bus tour to Louisiana, both supported the relief effort and drew out the important political conclusion that the Bush administration's war in Iraq is linked to its arrogant contempt for the poor in the U.S.

This new mood--kindled by the political crisis that followed the Katrina disaster--will hopefully translate into an big turnout at the national antiwar demonstration September 24. After the protest, activists returning home can look forward to new opportunities to organize the opposition.

The key will be building at the grassroots--by reaching the growing numbers of people angry about war abroad, and repression and poverty at home.

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