Thursday, March 09, 2006

Depends on what the meaning of "breach" is

The debate continues about whether the tapes and transcripts of White House Katrina meetings are damning to President Bush, who said after the flooding of New Orleans that "nobody anticipated the breach of the levees."

Much of this debate now focuses on the distinction between "topped" and "breached." The White House was definitely warned that the levees could be overtopped by the hurricane; but is that the same thing?

Well, not quite. A breach is clearly more catastrophic. However, it does seem clear that the possibility of levee failure had been raised, and Bush's statement did suggest that it came as a shock. Furthermore, according to the Associated Press:

specific mention of possible breaches was raised at an Aug. 29 teleconference that included Joe Hagin, deputy White House chief of staff.

The tapes and transcripts leave no doubt of the incompetence of state and local officials -- no question about that. But they also do, it seems to me, confirm the increasingly widespread view of the Bush White House as incompetent, lacking in public accountability, and either dishonest or ill-informed.

And, as always, the partisanship of this debate is rife with irony. Right now, we have a lot of people passionately arguing that the distinction between "breached" and "topped" is (a) vitally important, and it's dishonest and misleading to conflate the two, or (b) meaningless semantic nitpicking and a transparent ploy to get the White House off the hook. How many of those people would have magically switched sides in this semantic dispute if this was the Clinton White House we were talking about?


mythago said...

How many of those people would have magically switched sides in this semantic dispute if this was the Clinton White House we were talking about?

Well, that's what debates about national politics are about: teams, not ideas. It doesn't matter what's said, but who said it.

Anonymous said...

mythago, not always. Here is my political philosophy:

"I'm of the opinion that you can determine you are on the right political course when you can annoy an equal number of people of each political persuasion, and that you will know you tread the Blessed Path of Ultimate Political Truth when absolutely everybody hates your guts." - The Poor Man, SEP02 (back when he was funny)

I am registered Independent (I'll fax you a copy of my voter registration if you doubt this), and I really do try to judge political ideas and personalities based on the merits. I would argue that President Clinton was a liar and a cad in his personal life, but also a smart and effective president who did most things well while in office (key word here is "most"). President Bush, in contrast, is a liar and a cad in *every* area of his life, especially including his leadership. I am not at all surprised nowadays to see more and more conservatives turning their backs on him, as they realize that he is doing their movement more harm than good. Not that this bothers me, but it is interesting to watch.

Revenant said...

Right now, we have a lot of people passionately arguing that the distinction between "breached" and "topped" is (a) vitally important

Well, I guess I'm in that category, because they really are two different things. If nothing more than topping had occurred I doubt the story would have been in the news more than a day or two. A breach represents catastrophic failure of the levee system and results in, well, pretty much what we saw -- everything below sea level winds up under water. With topping you get a finite amount of water, and possibly localized flooding, that is easily dealt with by the pumps New Orleans was already equipped with.

How many of those people would have magically switched sides in this semantic dispute if this was the Clinton White House we were talking about?

I don't think I would have, much as I disliked Clinton. Even if Bush screwed up in this case (which I'm not convinced of), it was not, in my opinion, a Presidential responsibility in the first place.

Anonymous said...

People who want to conflate the meanings and obscure the distinction mostly seem interested in doing so in order to prove that Bush intentionally lied. I've never liked Bush, but I don't think he's lying, and I don't think he has a good motive to lie when modern technology suggestes its ever harder to get away with it. Playing gotcha is, IMO, pointless. Let's see what we can learn to help us do better in the future, and leave the finger-pointing to the partisans.

And here's the thing: maybe the exact nature of Bush's understanding of the levees immediately prior to Katrina would matter if we thought anything important could have done to prevent the breeches in the hours before the hurricane hit. But who thinks anything substantive could have done at that point? In the hours just before Katrina hit, we were pretty much down to hoping in many instances, right?

BTW, I disagree with the notion that a levee that has been topped has failed. If something performs exactly as designed, it didn't fail. A 12 foot levee is designed to prevent floods when the water level is > 12 feet. If a 13 foot flood happens, and the levee is overtopped, the levee didn't fail. the people who planned and OK'd the levees failed. The failure was not that of the object, but rather a failure of anticipation, or perhaps an anticipated failure that was accepted as a compromise between what we'd like to have done and what we had the resources to do.


mythago said...

Playing gotcha is, IMO, pointless.

I could swear this was a talking point.

Peter Hoh said...

"nobody anticipated the breach of the levees."

This is the same White House that told us that before 9/11, no one anticipated that commercial jets could be used as weapons.

And no one anticipated that the insurgency in Iraq was going to be as strong as it's been.

Anybody want to guess which Carly Simon song isn't on the President's ipod?

thecobrasnose said...

Maybe I'm just cynical, but I'm not convinced that had the Katrina catastrophe happened on "the first black president"'s watch that a videotape of a meeting that showed what he said to have been technically correct all along would have been news six months later. Not that some conspiracy nuts wouldn't have posted angry rants on their blogs, but would it have been front page news in the major media?

Either way, it's just another aspect of the scandalously bad coverage of Katrina and its aftermath by the media, which has proved itself almost entirely untrustworthy in this matter.

Anonymous said...

No mythago, it's a thinking point.

Suppose we could conclusively establish that the blame deserved to be distributed as follows:

Bush 60%; Fema 20%; state governments 15%; local governments 5%

Would we change the ways that we needed to improve if instead the results were

Bush 15%; Fema 35%; state governments 40%; local governments 10%

___or just maybe, possibly___

Katrine 75% Bush 6%; Fema 10%; state governments 4%; local governments 54%

Wouldn't THAT be a shocker? Laying most of the blame with the huge storm. Revolutionary!

Now after all, maybe what I said previously was a talking point. If it is, perhaps I could have expressed it better as "get off the cross, we need the wood for the fire."

Or maybe "get off the cross and use the wood to build a bridge to get over it."


Anonymous said...

These sorts of debates will drive you to drink if you let yourself get mired in the details. The underlying theme is as follows:

During the Clinton years-
Liberals: We just love him!
Conservatives: He is BAD BAD BAD! Can't you see he is lying to you!? Wake up!

During the Bush years-
Conservatives: We just love him!
Liberals: He is BAD BAD BAD! Can't you see he is lying to you!? Wake up!

People will have this argument until their voices get hoarse and their typing fingers cramp. I try to stay out of it. For me, the issue is simply results. If the guy in charge is consistantly producing bad results on the majority of issues that I care about, then he is not the right guy for the job. I am really not interested in excuses, and I am certainly not going to fixate on whether or not it was a really good excuse.


Revenant said...

During the Clinton years-
Liberals: We just love him!

During the Bush years-
Conservatives: We just love him!

Neither one of those statements is really true, though. Clinton was widely disliked by many on the left, just as Bush is widely disliked by many on the right. A large part of the support those two men had/have came from who their enemies were. E.g., it isn't that conservatives were ecstatic about electing Bush in 2004 -- it is just that they didn't want Kerry anywhere near the Oval Office.

Had the Democrats nominated a centrist, Bush would have been abandoned in much the same way that his father was abandoned in 1992.

mythago said...

No, BK, "let's not play the blame game" was definitely a talking point. And numbers are always impressive, but don't detract from what Cathy made very clear: people get fussy about hair-splitting and muddy language only when they don't like the person using it.

Revenant said...

Is this a matter of opinion, or of law?

Both, I believe. So far as I know there is no law requiring the President to personally direct FEMA under any circumstances, nor is there, so far as I know, a legal requirement for FEMA to prepare a response to disasters prior to their assistance being requested with that disaster.

Even on a William Howard Taft theory of presidential responsibility, doesn't the law that creates FEMA generate duties Bush breached?

No, because the law that created FEMA also created an office responsible for managing it. The President's only involvement with FEMA is appointing someone to run it.

Revenant said...

"The president shall take care that [some of] the laws be faithfully executed."

Which law are you claiming he didn't faithfully execute during the Katrina incident? Or is this just one of the usual "I don't like what Bush did so I'll imagine there's a law about it" things? :)

Anonymous said...

Even before this video came to light, Bush was always either lying or stupid in his claim that "no one could have foreseen" that the levees would fail.

Everyone has always known that the levees were vulnerable. It has been mainstream scientific and engineering knowledge for literally decades.

Then again, the fact that it was mainstream scientific knowledge probably explains why Bush either didn't know or didn't care about it.

Anonymous said...

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I like your Klinton reference here,

Anonymous said...

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Best regards,
-Capj (Blog)

Anonymous said...

people get fussy about hair-splitting and muddy language only when they don't like the person using it.

That's not true. People get fussy about hair-splitting and muddy language all the time, for a whole host of reasons. You contention is demonstrably false.

Another thing people do all the time is try to change the subject when they can't come up with a decent counterargument. A clever tool in this kit is to suggest that if someone's point happens to be a "talking point," then this immediately discredits the notion from being credible. Apparently, identifying a notion as a "talking point" is sufficient to discredit it as a notion of any merit. That's a fool's tool kit, right there.

Now if you are determined to place primary blame with the President for Katrina's unsatisfactory aftermath, there's nothing I can do about it. Go for it.

You can count me among that set of people who has a deep and long-standing dislike of GWB for a variety of reasons. He's dim, opaque, autocratic, impatient, and not very detail-oriented. But I'm still not going to nail him to the cross for this one. I blame Katrina first, and middle management related bureaucratic ass-covering 2nd.


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