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Issue Date:  September 16, 2005

In contempt of government

U.N. Ambassador John Bolton is to diplomacy as FEMA director Michael Brown is to disaster relief: a man ill-suited by experience and temperament to the assigned task. Bolton, a beneficiary of neoconservative cronyism, and Brown, whose primary qualification for the sensitive post he holds is that he was college roommate of George W. Bush’s chief campaign operative, personify the intellectual corruption and outright incompetence of this administration -- government as a plaything of ideology and reward for partisan service rendered.

Bolton and Brown are linked as symbols of the cavalier attitude this administration shows toward the legitimate functions of government and, by extension, toward those who fall outside the category of economically privileged.

All of that would be bad enough if the world were calm and all were well-fed and housed. But in a world and nation where poverty and hunger is on the increase, those attitudes mean that people die.

The United States should be leading the charge at the United Nations for implementation of the Millennium Declaration. That groundbreaking pledge, unanimously adopted at the 2000 U.N. Summit, committed the nations of the world to eight specific objectives to be achieved by 2015: eradication of extreme hunger and poverty, universal primary education, promotion of gender equality in primary and secondary education, a two-thirds reduction in child mortality rates, a 75 percent reduction in maternal mortality rates, reversal of the spiraling rates of HIV infection, promotion of environmental sustainability, and a commitment to global economic development efforts.

A U.N. Development Program report issued Sept. 7, in anticipation of the 2005 U.N. summit, notes that “without the required investment and political will” the objectives will go unmet. For example, if current trends continue, there will be more than 800 million people on the planet living in “extreme poverty” in 2015. That’s 380 million more than if internationally agreed targets were met. Twice that number will be living on about $2 a day, which, amazingly enough, doesn’t qualify as “extreme poverty.”

Given the U.S. interest in promoting economic growth in impoverished nations and the need for “investment and political will,” the logical response of our representatives before the world would be to promote the plans that make achievement of the goals possible. Sure, there might be disputes about the means necessary to achieve the ends -- but that’s where diplomacy comes in.

Instead of providing leadership, however, John Bolton offered 750 last-minute amendments to the 39-page document that was to be the focal point of the summit. Rather than call for the elimination of child labor, for example, Bolton suggests eliminating “the worst forms” of the practice. He demanded elimination of a phrase stating that “the use of force should be considered as an instrument of last resort” (so much for the idea that Catholic teaching has had a substantial impact on this administration’s policies). And the idea that wealthy nations should spend .7 percent of their gross domestic product on development assistance was rejected by Bolton.

And so on and so on.

Where we need leadership, we get obstruction, belligerence and bullying.

Meanwhile, on the home front, the Census Bureau reported Aug. 30 that an additional 1.1 million Americans joined the ranks of the officially poor in 2004. A total of 12.7 percent of all Americans live below the federal poverty threshold. The biggest jump in the poverty rate came among non-Hispanic whites, 8.6 percent of whom live below the poverty line. Nearly one-quarter of African-American households and more than 20 percent of Hispanic households are deemed poor.

Nearly 46 million Americans have no health insurance, up more than 4 million since Bush took office in January 2001.

In every year of the Bush presidency, the number of Americans in poverty has risen and the number of uninsured has increased.

In response to growing outrage of the administration’s handling of Hurricane Katrina, Bush said the “results” of the federal response were not satisfactory. It was unusual understatement for a the “bring ’em on” president who wanted Osama Bin Laden “dead or alive,” declared “an end to major combat operations,” and pledged to lead a “crusade” against those who would do us harm. The “results” of federal involvement in Katrina relief have, of course, been disastrous, which is what happens when the three top officials, Brown and his top two deputies, are political operatives and not emergency-planning professionals.

But given the track record -- on poverty in the developing world, on the Iraq war, on health care and economic opportunity for Americans -- why did we expect anything different? Responding with adequate resources to a national emergency (particularly one that has been predicted for decades) is the federal equivalent of picking up the garbage at the municipal level. It is a minimal expectation of government -- that which must be done.

But Bush and his crowd have contempt for government and its processes. Bolton, a recess appointment, wouldn’t have his apartment at the Waldorf if the administration had any respect for the way things should work. And Brown would be back in Oklahoma handling real estate closings rather than bumbling about as a great city lay in ruins.

“Brownie, you’re doing a heck of a job,” the president told the FEMA director on his first post-Katrina visit to the Gulf Coast. The day before that public praise, “Brownie” acknowledged that FEMA had no idea, until two days after the hurricane hit, that the thousands of people stranded in the living hell of the Superdome had no food or water. “Heck of a job” indeed.

The president’s approval ratings are the lowest they have ever been. People, it seems, are catching on.

National Catholic Reporter, September 16, 2005

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