Glug, glug, glug.
(Sorry; couldn't resist.)
I have not been thinking about who, if anyone, is responsible for the devastation of Hurricane Katrina. Whenever I find myself on a web page that has anything to do with those questions, I save the link and move on. I just can't begin to think about that yet.
However, I did follow a link in comments to this post by Thomas at RedState. Since he is from Louisiana, I'll give him a pass on the rhetoric: I don't get bent out of shape by what people say two days after large chunks of their home state have been destroyed. But it did make me think: maybe now would be a good time to lay out, in general, the kinds of criticisms I think might be in order and the kinds I don't, precisely because I haven't read any of the relevant articles and I really don't know what they contain, other than what one can glean from the headlines. I have no idea at all what the facts are (which is why, at various points in this post, I'll probably find myself saying: I don't know if this is true, but suppose it is... -- I really don't know. This is not disingenuous at all.) Because I have no idea which criticisms, if any, I will end up thinking have some merit, I can't really skew things one way or the other.
First of all, while of course no one should slant their assessment for political purposes, it can't be inappropriate for anyone ever to criticize the government's preparedness or response to this catastrophe. The possibility that exactly this sort of catastrophe would strike New Orleans was not exactly unforeseen. I first read about it years ago, and have been hoping against hope that someone, somewhere, was looking out for New Orleans: shoring up the levees, starting to replenish the wetlands, and so forth. And if I, who am not responsible for emergency preparedness, knew about this, surely someone in the federal government knew as well.
If any criticism of government preparedness for a disaster is forever out of bounds once the disaster happens, then we can never figure out what our mistakes are and learn from them. Obviously, this would be awful: the last thing on earth we should do is doom ourself to ignorance on the crucial question: what can we do to minimize the possibility that anything like this will ever happen again? Moreover, it makes no more sense to me to say that our government's success or failure at preparing for an entirely predictable catastrophe is somehow not an appropriate topic of conversation than it would make sense to rule out discussion of an administration's foreign policy or environmental record. This is exactly the sort of thing we should think about in assessing an administration's record. If we were as well prepared as we should have been, obviously whoever is responsible for that deserves credit. And if not, whoever is responsible for that deserves blame, absent some compelling story about other, even more urgent priorities, which, just now, I have a hard time imagining.
On the other hand...
(1) I don't think it's fair to criticize the administration for the fact (supposing it is one) that it didn't prepare perfectly or didn't respond perfectly for the hurricane. Things go wrong; stuff falls through the cracks; we are human and fallible; and no one should be blamed for that. Moreover, I assume that if one is dealing with a huge catastrophe, one is likely to do a certain number of things that, considered individually, look like inexplicable mistakes: the kind that make people say, how on earth could you not have done that? But I think that iin a situation like this, in which a lot of people have to make a lot of decisions under great pressure, a number of individually inexplicable errors are predictable given normal human fallibility, and that while we should note them and learn from them, they are not grounds for blame.
On the other hand, I think that there are limits to how big these can be (in a situation like this, you don't get to forget to mount a rescue effort, for instance) and also to how many you can make without criticism. Moreover, I think the number of mistakes one can accept without blame is a lot smaller during the period before the actual crisis than during it.
The upshot if this is: I will not criticize the administration for the mere fact that some mistakes were made, nor for the fact that, during the actual crisis period, some number of apparently inexplicable mistakes were made, so long as these seem to me to fall within the levels that you have to accept, given that the preparation and response were made by human beings. I will criticize them only if they made more mistakes, or worse mistakes, than normal human fallibility would explain.
(2) I think that we can only criticize the administration for the foreseeable effects of its policies. This means, I think, that blaming this particular hurricane on Bush would be wrong even if, let's say, global warming does increase either the frequency or the severity of hurricanes. Since, as I said, I haven't been able to read the relevant articles since this happened, and don't know the science offhand, I have no idea whether this is true. However, assuming it arguendo: we would still have no idea whether global warming played any role in this hurricane, and if so, how much of one; nor would we know how much any action of ours would have affected it. We might, however, ask why preventing this sort of hurricane has not been more of a priority.
By the same token, however, I don't think it's much of a defense of the administration's policies to point out (as Thomas does) that they would not have protected against this particular hurricane. If there is any blame, which I don't know, it would have to be for failing to take appropriate action given the likelihood that some hurricane would strike New Orleans at some point, not for failing to anticipate this hurricane in particular.
(3) I think criticizing the administration's priorities is absolutely fair game. If it turns out that we underfunded this, then I think it would be perfectly appropriate to ask why so much energy went into, say, the tax cuts, especially the porkier ones, and not enough into avoiding the predictable devastation of one of our most wonderful cities, with the attendant horrific loss of life.
In general, though, while I find the idea of skewing my views for political reasons particularly grotesque in this instance, I think that criticizing the government for failing to plan and prepare adequately for a completely foreseeable (and foreseen) disaster is completely appropriate when that criticism is warranted. It's not warranted if it amounts to pointing out normal human fallibility, and it's not warranted if it amounts to saying: you failed to predict the exact form that catastrophe took: the exact size of the hurricane, for instance. You can only criticize people for failing to act given what they could and should have known at the time, not for failing to be omniscient. But criticism is appropriate if it amounts to saying: there were steps you should have known you should take, and didn't; and if that statement is true. And while, as I said, I am nowhere near thinking about this stuff now, I thought I'd lay down a marker from behind my veil of ignorance, for when I have the heart to read the things I've bookmarked.