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Why We Care About Politics

Politics isn’t a game.

We’ve seen the first full week of national politics arrive early in 2007, courtesy of a Democratic majority who understand this. And as we look back at a week which saw the Democrats in the House rapidly pass a full slate of progressive legislation, only to have their achievements essentially ignored as Bush stole the spotlight by “rolling out” his standard speech on “changing direction in Iraq”, I think it’s important to spend a moment reminding ourselves that the stakes are deadly and real. This shouldn’t be treated as a chance to count coup, score points, or exact a petty vengeance. This is a chance to fix the country, put America back on track, and correct the wrongs which have been done in our name.

One of the pervasive myths of politics, promulgated by a mainstream media obsessed with process instead of policy, is that there’s no difference between Republicans and Democrats; no difference between liberals and conservatives. This myth is corrosive, reducing elections to beauty pageants and posturing. It disengages the common citizen from the political process, which only makes it easier for those with a vested interest in promoting public apathy to push their personal agendas while staying out of the public’s eye.

But leadership matters. So as we perch precariously on the razor’s edge between responsible government and opportunistic payback, I’d like to take a moment to look at the most recent and most vivid example of why we should care about politics: The maddening margin of victory which made George W. Bush and not Al Gore our 43rd president. And four key events over the past six years in which the world could have gone a different way.


On September 11th, 2001, as we all know, the United States suffered a horrific attack. It was the first act of war on U.S. soil in over half a century, and the viciousness of its barbarism shocked the world.

Could the 9/11 attacks have been prevented? As with many national tragedies, it’s easy to second-guess history with the benefit of perfect hindsight. It’s easy to look at a dozen disparate pieces of evidence and say, “Someone should have put those pieces together. Someone should have figured this out. Someone should have stopped this.”

But rather than playing the part of detective after the mystery has already been solved, let’s instead consider how the reaction to one piece of information may have changed the course of history.

That piece of information is the August 6th, 2001, Presidential Daily Brief: “Bin Laden Determined to Strike in U.S. ” It said, in part:

Al Qaeda members -- including some who are U.S. citizens -- have resided in or traveled to the U.S. for years, and the group apparently maintains a support structure that could aid attacks.


Nevertheless, FBI information since that time indicates patterns of suspicious activity in this country consistent with preparations for hijackings or other types of attacks, including recent surveillance of federal buildings in New York .

The FBI is conducting approximately 70 full-field investigations throughout the U.S. that it considers bin Laden-related. CIA and the FBI are investigating a call to our embassy in the UAE in May saying that a group of bin Laden supporters was in the U.S. planning attacks with explosives.

This document was the thirty-sixth PDB regarding al-Qaeda and Bin Laden which had been given to the President that year. It was designed to deliver a clear warning to the President that al-Qaeda was active in the United States and presented an eminent threat. After the 9/11 attacks, the President, Condoleezza Rice, and everyone else in the White House administration would claim that this “report was historical in nature”. But the 9/11 Commission Report directly contradicted their claim:

Two CIA analysts involved in preparing this briefing article believed it represented an opportunity to communicate their view that the threat of a Bin Ladin attack in the United States remained both current and serious.

President Bush’s response to the PDB – designed to communicate the threat of a Bin Laden attack in the United States – was non-existent. He spent the entire month of August vacationing.

How seriously should this threat have been taken? According to Al Gore, very seriously. In a speech delivered on October 18th, 2004, Gore said:

[T]he President himself was presented with a CIA report with the headline – more alarming and more pointed than any I saw in eight years of daily CIA briefings: “Bin Laden Determined to Strike in the U.S.”

Al Gore wouldn’t have been alone in his alarm. According to the 9/11 Commission Report, “most of the intelligence community recognized in the summer of 2001 that the number and severity of threat reports were unprecedented”.

And now we come to the crux of the issue: We know that President Bush’s response to this alarming report was to do absolutely nothing. He never lifted a finger, and a little more than a month later nearly three thousand Americans died.

Would the response of President Gore have been any different? Let’s listen to his words again:

The only warnings of this nature that remotely resembled the one given to George Bush were about the so-called Millennium threats predicted for the end of the year 1999 and less specific warnings about the Olympics in Atlanta in 1996. In both cases, these warnings in the President’s Daily Brief were followed, immediately, the same day – by the beginning of urgent daily meetings in the White House of all of the agencies and offices involved in preparing our nation to prevent the threatened attack.

By contrast, when President Bush received his fateful and historic warning of 9/11, he did not convene the National Security Council, did not bring together the FBI and CIA and other agencies with responsibility to protect the nation, and apparently did not even ask follow-up questions about the warning.

You’ll notice that Gore doesn’t talk about what he would have done. He simply talks about what he and President Clinton did do when faced with similar threats. (And if you want confirmation of that, you can refer to the 9/11 Commission Report for an impartial recounting of the events.)

Would the concerted and dedicated response of President Gore, unlike the lackadaisical and uncoordinated response of President Bush, have been enough to stop the 9/11 attacks? We’ll never know. But such efforts had worked in the past. And on August 16th, the FBI arrested Zacarias Moussaoui for an immigration violation. There were concerns that his flight training may have had violent intentions, but the agents involved were unaware that President Bush had been warned ten days earlier that “Bin Ladin wanted to hijack a US aircraft”. There was no heightened sense of alert because President Bush had not called for one.

We’ll never know if President Bush could have saved the lives of everyone who died on 9/11. But we do know that he didn’t even try.


Asian Tsunami

On December 26th, 2004, tsunamis triggered by an earthquake off the west coast of Sumatra devastated the the Indian Ocean . Nearly two hundred thousand people were killed in what became the world’s deadliest disaster in more than twenty-five years.

It is, of course, absurd to suggest that President Bush (or anyone else) could have prevented the earthquake which caused this calamity. But the reason the Asian Tsunami, as it came to be known internationally, proved to be so deadly was due to the lack of a warning system in the Indian Ocean .

Such a system has, in fact, existed in the Pacific Ocean since 1946. The Pacific Tsunami Warning Center has probably saved hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of lives over the past sixty years. If such a system had been operational in the Indian Ocean in 2004, experts agree that tens of thousands of lives could have been saved with a timely evacuation of coastal regions.

Following the deadly tsunami, UNESCO began work on establishing a warning system which became fully active in June 2006. It’s too bad that no one thought to put such a system in place before tragedy struck.

Except that someone did: Al Gore.

In 1998, Gore attempted to spearhead the creation of the Global Disaster Information Network. This agency would have developed worldwide emergency planning and worked to advance and improve the science of disaster prediction. If Gore’s vision had been followed, it is likely the GDIN would have facilitated the creation of an Indian Ocean tsunami warning system. Unfortunately, the Republican congress – eager to prevent Gore from scoring any legislative victories which could be used in the 2000 Presidential campaign – killed the funding for the GDIN, which exists today as essentially nothing more than a website and forum.

Could President Gore have gotten a Republican congress to fund the GDIN before hundreds of thousands of people died on August 26th? Possibly. Could a President Gore working with a Democratic congress have done so? Almost certainly.

It’s like Bush says: “One of the things I learned is, the vision thing matters.”

Hurricane Katrina

On August 28th, 2005, less than a year after the Asian Tsunami, Hurricane Katrina struck the southeast coast of the United States . It destroyed the levees of New Orleans and, with the ensuing floods, laid waste to the city.

But while the Indian Ocean lacked the tsunami warning system which could have mitigated the crisis, the United States had a decades-proven solution already in place to cope with the catastrophe: The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).

Or, at least, we should have had it.

Unfortunately, the Republicans have loathed FEMA for decades. It’s never been entirely clear to me why, exactly, they bear such hatred towards a federal agency dedicated solely to aiding Americans in the hour of their most dire need, but anti-FEMA propaganda has streamed out of conservative think-tanks and magazines for more than twenty years. Here’s a typical example from the Cato Institute’s James Bovard in 1997:

But, as the actions of the Vernon town council show, FEMA's growth may not really be good government at all. Instead, it may be one more cause of the decline of individual responsibility—or even a semblance of respect for such responsibility — in our political culture.

Now, you might think that after 9/11 the Republicans would change their tune. After all, who could be so heartless as to claim that the victims in the World Trade Center should just buck up and accept a little individual responsibility for working in a building which had already been targeted by terrorist attacks once before. And with President Bush talking about the need to be ready and secure against the next terrorist attack, surely it would be folly to condemn the federal agency responsible for responding in the wake of those attacks.

Well, you might think that. But, instead, President Bush and the Republican Congress massively defunded FEMA.

For a specific example of the effect of this defunding, you don’t have to look any farther than Project Impact. James Lee Witt, the director of FEMA under Clinton , created Project Impact to take preemptive action and mitigate the effects of disasters before they happened. As Eric Holdeman described in a Washington Post article:

One of the best examples of the impact the program had here in the central Puget Sound area and in western Washington state was in protecting people at the time of the Nisqually earthquake on Feb. 28, 2001. Homes had been retrofitted for earthquakes and schools were protected from high-impact structural hazards. Those involved with Project Impact thought it ironic that the day of that quake was also the day that the then-new president chose to announce that Project Impact would be discontinued.

Having defunded and crippled FEMA, President Bush delivered the killing blow by appointing an incompetent political crony named Michael Brown to run the agency. Brown’s only significant management experience prior to being appointed to head FEMA was as the stewards and judges commissioner of the International Arabian Horse Association. (A position he was forced to resign from due to incompetence.)

Defunded and under the hapless leadership of Brown, it took FEMA days to respond to the crisis in New Orleans . Ironically, the Cato Institute offers perhaps the most apt description of the criminal incompetency which came about as a result of President Bush following their advice:

FEMA issued a sternly worded release on August 29, the same day the hurricane made landfall along the Gulf Coast , titled "First Responders Urged Not to Respond to Hurricane Impact Areas." FEMA wanted all the responders to be coordinated and to come when they were called. And that was one plan they followed. As the New York Times reported September 5:

When Wal-Mart sent three trailer trucks loaded with water, FEMA officials turned them away, [Jefferson Parish president Aaron Broussard] said. Agency workers prevented the Coast Guard from delivering 1,000 gallons of diesel fuel, and on Saturday they cut the parish's emergency communications line, leading the sheriff to restore it and post armed guards to protect it from FEMA, Mr. Broussard said.

(Of course, the Cato Institute claimed this as a vindication of their long-standing criticisms of FEMA. This is typical Republican doublethink: They take over the government and then run it like a drunk driving a demi. Then they claim that cars should be banned because they’ve been driving drunk. Thus, they defund FEMA and place an incompetent in charge of it. Having hopelessly crippled the agency, they then use its failures as evidence that the agency shouldn’t exist.

The correct response, of course, is to take away the drunk’s keys and never let them drive again.)

President George H.W. Bush demonstrated that he was out of touch with the American people when he didn’t know the price of milk. President George W. Bush demonstrated that he was not only out of touch with the American people but with the responsibilities of his office when he claimed that no one anticipated that the levees could break. No one, that is, except for the millions of people who watched CNN, MSNBC, and even the Weather Channel in the 48 hours leading up to the disaster, when that exact scenario was presented countless times and the hypothetical possibilities (which later became tragic realities) were considered over and over again. Not to mention the Clinton-era initiatives which would have improved and repaired the levees… only to have President Bush and the Republican Congress gut their funding.

Complimenting Michael Brown for having down “a heckuva job” while thousands of people died in New Orleans only served to confirm that President Bush had not only utterly failed in his duties, but was also so clueless that he was incapable of even realizing the disaster he had created through his lack of foresight and leadership.

Let me put it this way: Remember the Great Flood of 1993? It was among the most deadly and most costly floods in American history. $15 billion were recorded, extending across a flood region more than 1200 km long. Dozens of major communities along the Mississippi were flooded, with some of them remaining inundated for nearly two hundred days.

There is no question it was a disaster.

There is also no question that President Clinton promptly responded with a well-funded and well-coordinated effort spearheaded by FEMA. Private charity and public agencies worked together to ease suffering, mitigate damage, and prevent deaths.

There is little doubt that if Al Gore had been president, he wouldn’t have followed the urgings of the Cato Institute and other conservative think-tanks. He wouldn’t have dismantled FEMA and other first-response infrastructure. He wouldn’t have placed an incompetent in charge.

Words can never capture the enormity of the tragedy which gripped New Orleans as a direct result of President Bush’s failures. They can never capture the multitude of private horrors which were suffered. But here’s one small example: In the days following the breaking of the levees and the flooding of New Orleans , 16,000 people were directed to take refuge in the Superdome… and then left there to rot.

A 2-year-old girl slept in a pool of urine. Crack vials littered a restroom. Blood stained the walls next to vending machines smashed by teenagers. ‘We pee on the floor. We are like animals,’ said Taffany Smith, 25, as she cradled her 3-week-old son, Terry. … By Wednesday, it had degenerated into horror. … At least two people, including a child, have been raped. At least three people have died, including one man who jumped 50 feet to his death, saying he had nothing left to live for. There is no sanitation. The stench is overwhelming.

On Wednesday, children were being raped. But it wasn’t until Thursday that Michael Brown even realized that there were people at the Superdome… despite the fact that the national media had been carrying the story for days.

Words simply fail.


Just as it is impossible to find the words to describe the full tragedy of Hurricane Katrina and President Bush’s botched response to it, so it is impossible to succinctly describe the President’s failures in Iraq . Whether it was selling the war on false pretenses, not putting enough boots on the ground, failing to put in place a plan for the nation’s security following the fall of Baghdad, the lack of any coherent plan for a post-Saddam government, the false confidence of claiming the mission was accomplished when it had scarcely begun, or any of the dozens of other mistakes the Bush Administration has made in Iraq, it’s beyond the scope of this essay to document them. Entire books could be dedicated to the subject (and they have been).

Here’s what it can be boiled down to: If it was a war against an ally of al-Qaeda, then its conception was fundamentally flawed (there was never an alliance between Saddam Hussein and al-Qaeda). If it was a war to find weapons of mass destruction, it was doomed to failure from the start (the WMDs didn’t exist). If it was a war to stifle global terrorism, then it has demonstrably failed (acts of terrorism have increased).

And if it was a war of regime change, then one is forced to ask why President Bush and his administration failed to give any meaningful thought to the question of what they wanted to change the regime to. Words like “freedom”, “liberty”, and “democracy” are cheap. Actually achieving freedom, liberty, and democracy is the only thing with meaning – and it literally took the administration years before they could even describe the government they hoped to establish in Iraq .

Today, after nearly four years of war, it’s trivial to see the abject failure of President Bush’s war. But on September 22nd, 2002, before the war began, Al Gore saw the failure of vision and he predicted the abject futility of Bush’s half-thought war. At a speech given to the Commonwealth Club, Gore said:

I believe we should focus our efforts first and foremost against those who attacked us on September 11th and who have thus far gotten away with it. The vast majority of those who sponsored, planned and implemented the cold-blooded murder of more than 3,000 Americans are still at large, still neither located nor apprehended, much less punished and neutralized. I do not believe that we should allow ourselves to be distracted from this urgent task simply because it is proving to be more difficult and lengthy than was predicted. Great nations persevere and then prevail. They do not jump from one unfinished task to another. We should remain focused on the war against terrorism.

 In recent months we have seen the resurgence of the Taliban, but back in September 2002 Al Gore predicted it:

Nevertheless, President Bush is telling us that America's most urgent requirement of the moment - right now - is not to redouble our efforts against Al Qaeda, not to stabilize the nation of Afghanistan after driving its host government from power, even as Al Qaeda members slip back across the border to set up in Afghanistan again; rather, he is telling us that our most urgent task right now is to shift our focus and concentrate on immediately launching a new war against Saddam Hussein. And the president is proclaiming a new, uniquely American right to preemptively attack whomsoever he may deem represents a potential future threat.

It wasn’t that Al Gore though that Saddam Hussein shouldn’t be prevented from developing weapons of mass destruction. It wasn’t that Al Gore thought any war designed to topple Saddam Hussein’s regime was doomed. He simply wanted to make sure that the war was being pursued for the right reasons and at the right time. And he wanted to make sure, if and when the time for war came, that it would be done the right way:

Nevertheless, all Americans should acknowledge that Iraq does indeed pose a serious threat to the stability of the Persian Gulf region, and we should be about the business of organizing an international coalition to eliminate his access to weapons of mass destruction. Iraq 's search for weapons of mass destruction has proven impossible to completely deter, and we should assume that it will continue for as long as Saddam is in power. Now, let's be clear, there's no international law that can prevent the United States from taking action to protect our vital interests when it is manifestly clear that there is a choice to be made between law and our survival. Indeed, international law itself recognizes that such choices stay within the purview of all nations. I believe, however, that such a choice is not presented in the case of Iraq . Indeed, should we decide to proceed, our action can be justified within the framework of international law rather than requiring us to go outside the framework of international law. In fact, even though a new United Nations resolution might be helpful in the effort to forge an international consensus, I think it's abundantly clear that the existing U.N. resolutions passed 11 years ago are completely sufficient from a legal standpoint so long as it is clear that Saddam Hussein is in breach of the agreements made at the conclusion of the Persian Gulf War.

As I write this today, American casualties in Iraq have long-ago surpassed the death toll of 9/11. No war can be bloodless. But one is forced to wonder how many of those brave men and women would still be alive today if they had served under a competent and effective Commander in Chief gifted with foresight and wisdom.



Bush is incompetent. People die.

That's the story of his administration. And, in a broader scope, it's the story of the Republican Revolution.

This isn't radical hysteria. It's simple truth. With nothing more than basic competency, there are thousands of Americans -- and hundreds of thousands of people around the globe -- who would not be dead today. But because Bush and the Republicans were incapable of exercising even that basic measure of competency – and because they believed that scoring political points was more important than relieving the suffering of real men and women – thousands have died. And that is to say nothing of those teeming millions whose lot in life would be better if Bush had not repeatedly failed in his duties as Commander in Chief, Leader of the Free World, and (most importantly) President of the United States.

To understand the nightmare scenario that plagues my thoughts, simply imagine this: What would have happened if Bush had been president during the Cuban Missile Crisis? What would happen if something like the Cuban Missile Crisis were to happen before January 2009?

We'd all be dead.

Welcome to the nightmare. Share it with all those you can. Remember it when the next election cycle rolls around.

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