Katrina, Iraq, and the
Know-It-All Syndrome

Holed up on the tenth floor of a building in downtown New Orleans, one Michael Barnett, a former Special Forces soldier who works for the domain registrar Directnic.com, sends out this distress signal:

“In case anyone in national security is reading this, get the word to President Bush that we need the military in here NOW. The Active Duty Armed Forces. Mr. President, we are losing this city. I don’t care what you’re hearing on the news. The city is being lost. It is the law of the jungle down here. The command and control structure here is barely functioning. I’m not sure it’s anyone’s fault – I’m not sure it could be any other way at this point. We need the kind of logistical support and infrastructure only the Active Duty military can provide. The hospitals are in dire straights. The police barely have any capabilities at this point. The National Guard is doing their best, but the situation is not being contained. I’m here to help in anyway I can, but my capabilities are limited and dropping. Please get the military here to maintain order before this city is lost.”

Sorry, Mike, but nobody in national security is paying the least amount of attention. As the situation in Katrina-stricken New Orleans metastasizes out of control, we have word from the U.S. military:

“There will be no large-scale shifting of U.S. troops from Iraq and Afghanistan to help with disaster relief in Louisiana and Mississippi, a U.S. Central Command spokesman said Thursday.”

Nothing is going to divert our leaders’ attention away from their war to “liberate” the Middle East, not even a calamity on the scale of what is happening to New Orleans. The costs of the Iraq invasion and occupation have already exceeded the bill for the Vietnam war, and yet Congress, at the behest of this president, cut the budget for flood control and levee-building in New Orleans drastically:

“In fiscal year 2006, the New Orleans district of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is bracing for a record $71.2 million reduction in federal funding. It would be the largest single-year funding loss ever for the New Orleans district, Corps officials said.”

Billions for offense, but not one cent for our own people: that’s the slogan of this administration, and of the War Party generally. George W. Bush has vowed to “save” New Orleans, but his fan club over at National Review exhibits the true feelings of Beltway power-brokers for those peons stuck in the Big Easy, as when Jonah Goldberg opined:

ATTN: SUPERDOME RESIDENTS [Jonah Goldberg] – I think it’s time to face facts. That place is going to be a Mad Max/thunderdome Waterworld/Lord of the Flies horror show within the next few hours. My advice is to prepare yourself now. Hoard weapons, grow gills and learn to communicate with serpents. While you’re working on that, find the biggest guy you can and when he’s not expecting it beat him senseless. Gather young fighters around you and tell the womenfolk you will feed and protect any female who agrees to participate without question in your plans to repopulate the earth with a race of gilled-supermen. It’s never too soon to be prepared.”

Professor Stephen Bainbridge, a conservative law professor at UCLA and a blogger of note, took Goldberg to task for this particularly heartless comedy routine: Goldberg, however, refused to apologize:

“Perhaps Professor Bainbridge – of whom I am a fan – thinks something really awful will befall the denizens of the Superdome and therefore making a joke at their expense is wrong. My guess is that it will simply be a really unpleasent [sic] time for the remainder of the day, but hardly so unpleasent [sic] as to sanctify them with refugee or some other victim status.”

No one who isn’t, say, Ahmad Chalabi, or an Israeli “settler” in Gaza, deserves official “victim status” over at National Review. In a remarkably laconic (considering the source) note of contrition, Goldberg eventually conceded that “After sleeping on it, I decided I probably could have waited longer for the levity.” The problem, of course, isn’t that he should have held his fire until later, but that he should have kept his mouth shut to begin with. Undeterred by simple decency or common sense, however, National Review editor Rich Lowry defends Goldberg’s remarks:

“Personally, I thought the Jonah Superdome riff was funny and clearly was poking fun at the media frenzy around Katrina at a time when it seemed especially over-blown.”

It was all, suggests Lowry, a matter of bad timing, but rather than excusing Goldberg, this observation only underscores the underlying attitude that animates these heartless Bourbons. Lowry is saying that Goldberg couldn’t have known how the New Orleans disaster would turn out, but clearly Goldberg had a fairly strong opinion that the “denizens of the Superdome” would merely have “a really unpleasent [sic] time of it.” To the know-it-alls who inhabit the Washington Beltway – “denizens” of the corridors of power, if you will – the disasters and everyday misfortunes that befall the rest of us are, ultimately, of little consequence – and are thus fair game for court jesters such as Goldberg. Professor Bainbridge approaches a diagnosis of the moral and cognitive dissonance that afflicts Goldberg and his defenders when he notes:

“What happened in New Orleans (and the rest of the Gulf coast) was never anything for somebody sitting in safety hundreds of miles away to joke about, let alone so lamely.”

The Goldbergian style, an unpleasant product of the neoconservative takeover of the American Right, is derived from the self-important delusions and arrogance of inside-the-Beltway chatterers, for whom Goldberg is the poster boy. This same indifference to the perils of long-distance pontification permeates the views of Goldberg and his neocon confreres at National Review on a wide variety of subjects, including especially the war in Iraq, which they fulsomely supported and continue to support. In that instance, too, their prognostications of a cakewalk were wide off the mark – another case of the Know-it-all Syndrome in action.

Please spare me the cries of “Raimondo is exploiting the tragedy” of New Orleans by dragging the war into this. Don’t look at me, bud. Listen, instead, to the people of New Orleans:

“Fury rose among many of those evacuated. Outside the Convention Center, the sidewalks were packed with people without food, water or medical care, and with no sign of law enforcement. Thousands of storm refugees had been assembling outside for days, waiting for buses that did not come.

“At least seven bodies were scattered outside, and hungry, desperate people who were tired of waiting broke through the steel doors to a food service entrance and began pushing out pallets of water and juice and whatever else they could find.

“An old man in a chaise lounge lay dead in a grassy median as hungry babies wailed around him. Around the corner, an elderly woman lay dead in her wheelchair, covered up by a blanket, and another body lay beside her wrapped in a sheet.

“‘I don’t treat my dog like that,’ 47-year-old Daniel Edwards said as he pointed at the woman in the wheelchair. ‘I buried my dog.’ He added: ‘You can do everything for other countries but you can’t do nothing for your own people. You can go overseas with the military but you can’t get them down here.'”‘

Of course not. The American military no longer has anything to do with protecting this country from invasions, either natural or man-made. It is purely an instrument of naked aggression, only peripherally serving distinctly American interests, and then grudgingly and as a last resort. The announcement that troops will not be diverted from Iraq to Louisiana tells us everything we need to know about the War Party’s priorities. As both New Orleans and Baghdad sink into complete chaos, only the latter is getting any serious attention from Washington.

To the Jonah Goldbergs of this world, the suffering masses holed up in the Superdome don’t deserve victim status, but George W. Bush probably does: he, after all, was caught entirely unawares by this act of God, which no one could have predicted. Except it was predicted, as this 2001 story from the Houston Chronicle makes all too clear:

“New Orleans is sinking.

“And its main buffer from a hurricane, the protective Mississippi River delta, is quickly eroding away, leaving the historic city perilously close to disaster.

“So vulnerable, in fact, that earlier this year the Federal Emergency Management Agency ranked the potential damage to New Orleans as among the three likeliest, most castastrophic disasters facing this country.

“The other two? A massive earthquake in San Francisco, and, almost prophetically, a terrorist attack on New York City.

“The New Orleans hurricane scenario may be the deadliest of all.”

As we begin to unearth all the warnings, might-have-beens, and should-have-dones that are now cropping up in regard to 9/11, the same sort of critique might be applied to the New Orleans debacle, which – no doubt – a New Orleans Disaster Commission will examine in the not-too-distant future. What went wrong? How did we miss it? What’s wrong with our priorities?

I’ll tell you what’s wrong: we’re so busy conquering the world that we can’t be bothered to attend to the basics on the home front. Furthermore, the Washington elites care a lot more about the possibility of Iraq falling to the insurgents than they do about New Orleans falling into the Gulf of Mexico. You can see that in the budget numbers – and people like Mr. Edwards, quoted above, know it.

As Radley Balko points out:

“More than 3,000 – or about 35% – of Louisiana’s National Guard troops are in Iraq right now, too. Forty percent of Mississippi’s are. Gone too are many of the guard’s generators, high-water vehicles, and refuelers.

“The federal government has again failed at the one thing it’s actually supposed to do: Protect us from outside threats. Perversely, this failure is the direct result of a fool’s errand carried out in response to the massive failure of four years ago.

“Shoring up the levees and water pumps would have cost a mere $250 million, about a day-and-a-half of wartime operations in Iraq.”

But doesn’t this prove that the small government libertarian ideal is impractical? We are already hearing arguments that New Orleans proves how big government is an unavoidable protection against natural disasters, and the Democrats are no doubt shaping their talking points around this report of how federal dollars to prevent flooding in the region dried up to a mere trickle. The reality, however, is more complicated than that – and much more bitterly ironic.

The economic distortions of the market economy directly traceable to war, and to this war in particular, are driven home by the testimony of one Joseph Suhayda, a representative of HESCO Bastion USA, LLC, a Louisiana based manufacturer of erosion-control products, before the Senate Appropriations Committee on June 30, 2004:

“The HESCO Concertainer® was invented in England as an erosion and flood control product. The first erosion project done by HESCO UK was installed in 1989 and HESCO UK has established a reputation over the last 15 years of successfully preventing land erosion and coastal flooding worldwide.

“HESCO Concertainers® are being used extensively by the U. S. Military in Iraq and all over the globe to build structures which protect our troops, as shown in Figure 2. As you have probably seen on the news, the military application is to build blast and munitions absorbent walls that provide troop protection. The photo in Figure 2 was taken earlier this year in Iraq. This security application has become the main market for the HESCO product.

“Although HESCO UK has been working successfully with the United States military, the product has not seen much use as it was originally designed: erosion or flood control. To support this use, HESCO UK licensed the product to be manufactured in the United States. HESCO Bastion USA, LLC was opened on February 4, 2003 in Hammond, Louisiana. Because of the enormous erosion and flooding problems that occur in that region, HESCO USA has gained valuable experience in responding to the needs in the Gulf Coast states.”

Instead of protecting New Orleans from the relentless assault of the Gulf, the erosion-control equipment purchased by the U.S. government is over in “liberated” Iraq, being used to shield our troops from the deadly accolades of a grateful populace. A more dramatic – and tragic – demonstration of the principle of how war (and State action) diverts resources away from rational uses would be hard to find.

The know-it-alls in Washington, D.C., know nothing – and, worse than that, they don’t know that, either. Instead, sitting comfortably in their offices a good distance from the disaster they unleashed – either directly, in the case of Iraq, or indirectly, as in New Orleans – they remain supremely indifferent to the commoners’ fate.

With the New Orleans disaster in mind, I wrote a few days ago:

“This time the Washington insiders have gotten so far ahead of themselves, and the rest of the country, that the illusion of ‘democracy’ is dangerously close to being completely debunked. We are rapidly approaching the point where it will only take one incident, perhaps a relatively minor one, to spark a social explosion from that will make our republic reel.”

New Orleans has lit the fuse. I would advise everyone to stand back ….


I‘ve been persuaded – much against my own inclinations – to take a short vacation this long Labor Day weekend, and so, in theory at least, there won’t be a Monday edition of this column next week. If I were you, however, I’d check in just the same, in case some fresh outrage urgently requires comment in this space – a possibility that, these days, seems all too likely.

I also want to honor the memory of Jude Wanniski, the conservative economist and author of the “supply side” theory, whose book, The Way The World Works, catapulted him to prominence. He was a great friend of this website, devoting one of his last articles to singing its praises and urging people to contribute to our summer fundraising campaign. He had a tremendous influence, and, as a trenchant critic of the neoconservative takeover of the American Right, he took risks he didn’t have to take. Jude Wanniski spoke truth to power. He dared defend an older conservative sensibility against the assault of ideologues too enamored of their own conceit to see the folly of their ways, and he will be sorely missed.

Author: Justin Raimondo

Justin Raimondo passed away on June 27, 2019. He was the co-founder and editorial director of Antiwar.com, and was a senior fellow at the Randolph Bourne Institute. He was a contributing editor at The American Conservative, and wrote a monthly column for Chronicles. He was the author of Reclaiming the American Right: The Lost Legacy of the Conservative Movement [Center for Libertarian Studies, 1993; Intercollegiate Studies Institute, 2000], and An Enemy of the State: The Life of Murray N. Rothbard [Prometheus Books, 2000].