Thursday, September 29, 2005

The steroidal expansion of Congressional inquiry

Yesterday, several United States Senators, faced with monumental decisions about this country, such as whether or not to confirm Judge John Roberts as Chief Justice, how to most effectively prosecute the war on terror, how to clean up after the Gulf Coast hurricanes, and the best way to maintain our economy's strength, spent a morning lambasting professional sports leagues about the problems of using steroids. The interest of Senator Jim Bunning is obvious; he is a Hall of Fame baseball pitcher so naturally takes an interest in the matter. However, does the use of steroids rise to the level of importance of many other matters that the Congress could address?
The role of government is to provide the infrastructure and services that localities and states cannot, and, in general, to get out of the way more often than not. However, Congress takes an interest in baseball, particularly, because of its antitrust status. While this provides some justification, it certainly does not provide enough to merit Congressional meddling in a private affair. Simply put, one must wonder about the priorities of the Senate if it deems a steroid scandal as a "transcendent" issue, as John McCain put it. Likely, few of our soldiers who are defending freedom around the world think of a minority of professional sports players using steroids as a "transcendent" issue. Same with internally displaced citizens from Gulf Coast hurricanes. The displaced father of three is likely not concerned with steroid abuse, but, rather, with how the government will help him get back on his feet after the devastation of Katrina and Rita.
Government has no role in policing sports in the best of times; it is a private matter to be handled by leagues. If fans do not want their teams to employ players who use enhancement drugs, then they will not show up at the gates. However, these are not what many would classify as the best of times, and it is an abhorrence that the Senate would waste its time on these pithy matters. To quote Steve Czaban of Fox Sports Radio, John McCain is an "embarassment to Team Elephant" right now.

Tuesday, September 27, 2005

Brown's hearings show a complete lack of personal responsibility

The testimony of Michael Brown, former FEMA director, to Congress today was appalling. This was the testimony of someone who was trying to posthumously save his reputation as a competent, capable administrator. While all of the blame for the lack of response from many authorities, local, state, and federal, does not rest at Brown's feet, the utter failure of Brown to make a compelling argument for what share of the burden rested with his agency reflects poorly on his leadership capabilities and calls into question the rigor inherent in vetting heads of national authorities.

What specifically caused me to have a visceral reaction against Brown's testimony was a segment of his opening statement. In it, Brown spoke of walking into command posts where nobody was in charge and chaos reigned. He had seen smoothly run operations in Florida, but the situation in Louisiana was completely different. There was no leader taking charge and organizing. Brown's complaints show his primary shortcoming as the director of FEMA--his failure to take charge in that room and make things happen.

The public elects people that it expects to be leaders. It also expects those leaders to appoint other leaders to organizations to drive results. Leadership is encountering a difficult situation, taking command, and driving to a satisfactory resolution. When I was a tank platoon leader, I had a company commander, Scott Cunningham, who said--probably quoting some famous general of history (if anyone can tell me who the general or the real quote is, I'd really appreciate it)--that a medicore plan executed aggressively is much better than the best plan never executed at all. Brown sat back and took a victim mentality to what was happening. Brown, Governor Blanco, Mayor Nagin were and are not victims. The people who lost lives, homes, and suffered countless horrors are the victims, not the elected and appointed "leaders" who survived and then failed to act decisively.

Even if Brown did not have the direct authority to take command and start action, the right thing for him to do as a federally appointed leader was to step up and do it anyway. Proper chains of command could reemerge later, but at that point, the chain of command was a formless mass of unlinked parts, and Brown, the one that could have reformed that chain, failed miserably. He did the right thing only in stepping down from the role, and the government failed to do the right thing in firing him before he could step down.

The exposure of an incompetent administrator at the head of one of the nation's most important agencies calls into question the process by which these heads are chosen and the qualities that are requisite in a successful agency head. The first is indisputable--leadership. The federal government is and should be the backstop where local and state agents cannot handle situations, be it national defense, interstate regulations, or disasters. There will be times when those heads will face incredible hardships, war, catastrophe, and the like. These leaders should be willing to step into uncertain, chaotic situations and take command, tell the gathered that they are in charge, and to follow them.

While President Bush, Rudy Giuliani, and many others distinguished themselves with exemplary shows of leadership in the 9/11 period, the victims of hurricane Katrina are suffering from a nearly equivalent lack of leadership. What the federal government needs is not people looking to shirk responsibility and lay blame at the feet of others, as Michael Brown attempted to do today, but rather leaders who can galvanize and drive results in times of dire need.

Monday, September 26, 2005

The choice between hurricane cleanup and the war on terror is NOT a choice

The liberal media is attempting to portray the natural disasters in the Gulf Coast a perfect opportunity to frame government spending into an either/or type of decision with spending on cleanup from Katrina and Rita or spending the money necessary to support the effort in the war on terror. This is an incorrect presentation of the options in front of the American people. The decision before the American public is not a choice between cleanup or prosecution of the war on terror, but, rather, of how to pay for supporting both efforts.

The reasons that the United States has no choice but to pursue both courses of action simultaneously are clear, if not always understood. Failing to pursue the war on terror, a war in any sense of the term, and not a political engagement, leaves the United States open to asymmetrical opportunities to attack by the terrorists. As the United States cannot defend every potential target that the terrorists might hit without exhausting the Treasury and breaking the economy, it has no choice but to attack suspected terrorists before they have the capability to choose and hit a target. The base of support for terrorists is the disaffected who believe that the United States is wrong and that enough attacks on a populace will cause a callow withdrawal like witnessed in Somalia. However, creating free and open societies in areas where terrorists come from, such as in Wahabist Saudi Arabia, denies the terrorist recruiters the justification they have in bringing in new members to the fold. Furthermore, the enemy, the terrorists, are implicitly acknowledging that the focal point of this war is now Iraq. Abu Musab al-Zarqawi has repeatedly stated that a successful democracy in Iraq will likely signal the death knell for terrorist activities. Therefore, by not supporting the continuing war in Iraq and other places, we give the terrorists a chance to slip through the noose before it tightens on them and makes the costs of successfully prosecuting a war later exponentially higher.

The reasons for cleanup after the hurricanes’ destruction are equally clear, and certainly more understood. Failing to rebuild one of the largest cities in the United States, New Orleans, would be a failure of the implied agreement between government and people. The people pay taxes, take part in civic duties, and agree to the laws of the land in exchange for protection and provision of necessities for living and for the opportunity to pursue their dreams through hard work. Creating the internal displacement of a half a million people would be on a scale comparable to Africa or Afghanistan. Even though the displaced people would not face the level of hardship that a refugee in, for example, Chad fleeing from Darfur may face, to allow U.S. citizens to undergo needless relocation is unacceptable. While the purely economic argument could posit that people took risks of self-insurance by living in an area such as New Orleans, morally, giving in to the purely economic argument would disregard the inherent human value that all of the displaced, and all of the rest of us have.

Therefore, the question that should be before the public is not what to do, but how to accomplish it. Naysayers of thee war effort claim that the U.S. economy and government cannot afford both. This is true only if the government wishes to continue to spend money in areas that are, on a relative scale, less important. Funding for roads in Alaska that go to nowhere or for subsidization of a public broadcasting service which should be private can be eliminated or reduced to provide the funding to support both cleanup and the war on terror. What is needed is not profligate excess, but, rather, an intentional exercise in the tradeoffs offered. Unfortunately, in times of strife and suffering, we cannot have everything that we want, and we must make some sacrifices. Our government should take a hard look at spending and determine what is truly necessary and what is mere excess. Protecting pet projects in a local congressman’s district rather than freeing up the funds to tackle more important areas of government is inexcusable. Write elected representatives and hold them responsible for spending wisely so that they are not mortgaging the future to curry favorites with the present. No individual’s reelection in the next cycle is as important as the reconstruction of a destroyed city or as important as the successful prosecution of the war on terror.