- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 3, 2006

By habit and custom, Jan. 1 is a time for retrospection and resolution. The media selects its choices for people of the year and for the stories with the greatest public impact. By most accounts, American opinion was divided between Hurricane Katrina and the conflict in Iraq as the story of the year. Another big but less visible story was the demise of the promised American dream of lifetime employment and guaranteed retirement and health-care benefits, as General Motors fell from glory.

Katrina, followed by Rita, was America’s tsunami. The destruction was catastrophic. New Orleans was leveled as if hit by a weapon of mass destruction, and hundreds of thousands of Gulf Coasters became refugees without home or base. Government at all levels was woefully lacking in responding to this emergency. It will take years if not decades to repair the physical and psychological damage.

In Iraq, three elections chose an interim government, ratified a constitution and selected a permanent government that will serve for four years. The 2,000th American was killed and, towards year’s end, debate over U.S. withdrawal exploded in partisan fistfights between Republicans and Democrats. The poisonous political atmosphere was not helped by the controversy over torture or the revelation of domestic spying in apparent circumvention of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978.

The biggest missed story, however, cuts across both the Katrina tragedy and the conflict in Iraq. It is the failure of government at all levels to assign accountability for its performance and to act to correct the huge deficiencies that were so obvious. This story will continue to play out in 2006. Unless the White House and Congress take careful note and are prepared to put partisan differences aside in favor of the larger public good, the news will only grow worse. Complacency is simply unacceptable.

The abysmal performance of government in responding to Katrina, unlike the many individuals who behaved with courage, compassion and competence, is well documented. The question is what is being done at the federal, state and local levels across the country to learn these basic lessons, so when the next crisis comes, the nation will be better prepared? The answer is very little.

Before the September 11 commission’s term expired late last year, it issued a report card on the implementation of its recommendations to make the nation safer. Some three years after the September 11 attacks, and hundreds of billions of dollars later, the report card was quite striking in its criticism. That former Republican Govs. Tom Kean of New Jersey and Jim Thompson of Illinois (along with every other commission member) could so vigorously and passionately express anger and frustration over the lack of progress gave further weight to the critique. It was a one-day story at best.

Iraq is a second example of complacency. President Bush repeatedly and steadfastly argues that the United States is at war in Iraq. If that is the case, why then is only one department in government acting as if it is at war? The Department of Defense has sent the best of the best and spared little to carry out its missions. The morale of American fighting men and women is remarkably high. Indeed, the performance and attitudes of service personnel are perhaps the best argument that the White House has for explaining why we are in Iraq and why we must stay the course. That is one reason why the president has given so many speeches and made so many appearances in front of military audiences. And they are also friendly.

American observers returning from Iraq constantly note that the U.S. embassy, admittedly our largest, under the able leadership of Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad remains seriously undermanned. Worse, the various Iraqi ministries, operated by the sect or religious group that controls each and marked by incompetence and corruption, have simply not gotten the best of America’s best to advise and guide them on long-term bases.

The task of creating a democratic government when one has never existed is difficult enough. But tolerating agencies and bureaucracies that are dysfunctional and even dangerous is a prescription for failure. So, why then is not the entire U.S. government at war and as fully committed to victory as is defense?

Here, both the president and Congress are accountable. The White House cannot be allowed to declare that lessons are being learned and applied whether to homeland disaster or to stabilizing Iraq without being challenged to provide proof. And Congress must act responsibly, both to hold itself accountable for failing to provide adequate oversight and in moving to correct what must be fixed in partnership with the administration.

Katrina and Iraq lay bare profound dangers and challenges to the nation. But who will act and who will lead to rectify both?

Harlan Ullman is a columnist for The Washington Times.

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