Deja Vu All Over Again

Reacting to all the pricey promises the president made in his big Katrina speech, a senior House Republican official told the New York Times, "We are not sure he knows what he is getting into."

If that's true, Bush must have the worst memory since Guy Pearce in "Memento," because he's definitely been down this road before.

The coming attractions for the reconstruction of the Gulf Coast play like a shot-by-shot remake of the mother of all disaster features, the reconstruction of Iraq.

Let's start with the rhetoric. "We will do what it takes, we will stay as long as it takes," the president pledged on Thursday. "We will do whatever it takes ... we will stay there until the job is done," the president said of Iraq in November 2003. It wouldn't be a "Terminator" movie without "I'll be back," and it wouldn't be a massive mega-billion dollar Bush initiative without a vow to stay the course.

This rhetorical comparison extends to what the president didn't say -- namely, anything about the need for shared sacrifice. He didn't call for it after 9/11, he didn't call for it when we embarked on the war in Iraq, and he didn't call for it as we are embarking on the rebuilding of New Orleans. The closest he came was challenging "scout troops" to "get in touch with their counterparts" in the disaster area and "learn what they can do to help." Wonder if that was part of the Heritage Foundation's post-Katrina policy manifesto: Merit badges for corpse recovery and helping displaced evacuees across the street!

Indeed, responding to the devastation caused by Katrina, Treasury Secretary John Snow claimed: "Making the [Bush] tax cuts permanent would be a real plus in a situation like this." Sure, why ask for some sacrifice from the richest Americans when we have scout troops doing their part?

The feeling that the Katrina relief effort is going to be Iraq all over again is unavoidable when you look at the list of the companies already being awarded clean up and reconstruction contracts. It's that old gang from Baghdad: Halliburton, Bechtel, Fluor, and the Shaw Group (which has a tasteful notice on its website saying "Hurricane Recovery Projects -- Apply Here!"). Together again. A veritable moveable feast of crony capitalism.

Even the Wall Street Journal is getting an uneasy sense of deja vu, pointing out that "the Bush administration is importing many of the contract practices blamed for spending abuses in Iraq," including contracts awarded without competitive bidding, and cost-plus provisions "that guarantee contractors a certain profit regardless of how much they spend." So what's the thinking on this one, Mr. President -- 'If at first you don't succeed...'?

And what about financial oversight of the tens of billions that will be doled out to these corporate chums of the administration? After consistently stonewalling investigations into the corruption that has plagued U.S. efforts in Iraq, the president vowed to have "a team of inspectors general reviewing all expenditures" related to Katrina. But such promises seem laughable when you remember what happened to Bunny Greenhouse. After blowing the whistle on Halliburton's corrupt Iraq war contracts, the Army Corps of Engineers auditor was demoted. That should really motivate the Katrina contract inspection team.

Another very troubling similarity between the Katrina plan and the Iraq debacle is the failure of Democratic leaders to address the core issues raised by the president's proposals. Mirroring the spineless bandwagon hopping that gave the president a flashing green light on Iraq, Harry Reid responded to Bush's speech by saying, "I think we have to understand that we have a devastation that has to be taken care of. And I'm not finding where we can cut yet."

Really? How about Iraq? We're spending $5 billion a month there. And what about demanding the rollback of the Bush tax cuts? Even a partial rollback would produce about $180 billion in revenue, right around what the Katrina relief effort is estimated to cost. And how about taking a carving knife to the huge slabs of pork that continue to be piled onto legislation like the new transportation bill, which included 6,371 pet projects inserted by members from both parties, at a cost of more than $24 billion. And that's just one bill! But the Senate Minority Leader can't find where to cut yet?

Iraq is an utter catastrophe. The only good that can come from it will be as an object lesson in what not to do with Katrina. But, so far, it's a lesson both the president and the loyal opposition seem unwilling to learn.

As the philosopher said: It's deja vu all over again.

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