Monday, January 03, 2005

Non-Leadership 101 (continued)

Having taken some heat from self-appointed Bush defenders via email, re my comments last week on their Leader’s non-response to the disaster, I decided to step back and think about this some more, because it seemed to me that Goat Book, Part II exactly characterizes this administration. The parroted response from the Right: “What would you have had him do, parade in front of the world on TV like Clinton would have done?”

The USA is now beginning to provide important support, but notice the pattern again, as in the past. Only after the administration realized (after everybody else) that something was wrong and the heat was becoming unbearable, did something start to happen.

The case of Colin Powell is illustrative. Notice that he has had to defend, perhaps once a day, W’s 72-hour blackout after the disaster. Powell has reason to seem a bit touchy. His reaction, for someone who carried 4 stars on his shoulders, was also appalling.

While out of town visiting relatives over the holidays, we turned on the hotel room TV on Dec 27th to find Powell in a State Dept news conference talking about the disaster. Already recognizing that this was a calamity of major proportions two days after the tsunami, Powell said the US had freed up $900,000 and that his department was studying the challenge closely. This was such an astounding initial non-response, that my wife and I involuntarily laughed out loud, in disbelief. The pictures were already all over the news. The disaster would be massive. He knew this before most of us did.

Not to be outdone, later that day, the White House issued a release that Mr. Bush had 'sent condolences' to several countries, was studying the problem, and was watching the ‘images’ on TV.

In my view, leadership has to do with choices and priorities. Not taking any substantive action publicly for 72 hours, while the rest of the world wondered what was going on with W, was in fact a choice - and a bad one.

Here was an opportunity not only to immediately pledge support for one of the worst natural disasters ever, but to begin to repair a lot of lost good will around the world. Instead the administration, bitten in the butt by initial media response, proudly responded that $35 million had now been pledged. Then bloggers and several news agencies reported that the figure was less than the estimated $40 million for the upcoming inauguration festivities. The heat turned up in the kitchen some more, and finally some action started.

The White House press release is instructive of a loss of leadership perspective. What would a good leader have said? There are lots of possibilities, but conviction and tone were important at that point.

Something like this would have shown real leadership:

"The first reports indicate that the magnitude of this disaster appears
to be enormous and widespread, and possibly unprecedented. The United States has a long history of helping its world neighbors in times of natural disasters, and we will do so promptly and with all the resources and determination we can bring to bear to help meet the needs of the nations and peoples involved. I will ask Congress to immediately act to provide the monetary, food, medical, and other logistics support to prevent additional unnecessary death and suffering. I will work closely with other nations to coordinate support and ensure it is both efficient and effective. Our prayers and thoughts go out to all affected. We are with you."

Sending letters of condolence is pro forma, and it's nice that he was
watching the ‘images' on TV. And 'studying the issue' was a nonsensical response, because all the rest of us around the world, looking at the same images, didn't need to do a lot of 'studying'.

So either this president has a continuing history of inappropriate response or non-response to disasters, or he lacks his self-proclaimed compassionate conservatism, or he lacks common sense, or his advisors gave him bad advice. There aren't many other options (unless you want to speculate about his desire to help mostly Muslim victims etc.). Regardless, he made the wrong choice – again.

So, you say, what’s the big deal, he is doing something now, isn’t he? No. That’s not good enough for the leader of the free world. By his non-action, until the media and political leaders from other countries scorched the White House, Mr. Bush sent a message – the wrong one.

This was not the leadership that should have been exhibited right away by any president - Bush, Clinton or anyone, period, in my book.


: The media was not without its stupid decisions as well. CNN had a recently rare advantage over other cable news networks, having some reporters immediately available in the region. On the 27th, after some good summary coverage and initial videos of the tsunami effects, Greg Jarrett on CNN chose to then air an interview with the Men's Journal editor who extolled the wonders of owning your own island. Having just aired the devastation in the South Asia islands, CNN showed no brains about airing this thoughtless interview. However, it did support the Bush Doctrine of 'go shopping after a disaster strikes.'

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