Katrina and America’s Tipping Point

Abid Mustafa

Posted Sep 5, 2005      •Permalink      • Printer-Friendly Version
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Katrina and America’s tipping point

By Abid Mustafa

In the wake of the devastation caused by Hurricane Katrina and Bush’s inept
response to the unfolding humanitarian crisis in New Orleans, the myth of
America’s super power status has been shattered.

A country that prides itself on its achievements in space, its high-tech
weaponry and its ability to pulverise nations has by all accounts delivered
a third world response to alleviate the painful suffering of its own people.
So much so that America has finally swallowed her pride and asked the EU and
NATO for emergency assistance, requesting blankets, first aid kits, water
trucks and food for the victims of the hurricane.

This is the same America that claims the higher moral ground over other
nations because America believes she is the harbinger of human rights and
equality. But under her underbelly lurks wanton racism that the world
witnessed through the awful treatment of poor, black Americans who
constituted the vast majority of the victims of the hurricane.

Forget about America fighting two simultaneous wars in the global arena or
her grandiose desire to reshape the Middle East.  America’s inability to
cope with a man-made disaster at home and her commitments in Iraq and
Afghanistan has laid bare American exceptionalism and has exposed her
strategic vulnerability before the whole world.

The crisis has thrown the Bush administration into a quandary over how best
to maintain enough troops in Iraq and Afghanistan to oversee the political
process in each country against the much needed redeployment of US troops
and military assets to aid the relief efforts in Louisiana, Mississippi and
other neighbouring states.

This has become America’s tipping point and how President Bush deals with
the effects of Katrina at home balanced against American obligations
overseas, especially in the Muslim world will determine the fate of his
presidency and America’s position in the world.

It is difficult to see how President Bush can ignore Katrina’s destruction
at home. Initial estimates suggest that some 10,000 people have lost their
lives and more than 500,000 people have been displaced. America will have to
spend billions of dollars to bring some degree of normalcy to the lives of
the survivors. The paltry sum of $10.5 billion offered so far will have to
rise significantly if Bush is serious about accomplishing this task.

The effect on the American economy has been equally disastrous. Standard and
Poor’s estimated that damage from Hurricane Katrina could climb to as much
as $50 billion, once damage to infrastructure such as roads and bridges is
taken into account. The Port of New Orleans is one of the Southern US’s
busiest ports and a major oil distribution gateway. The port handles 20% of
US exports and will be out of action for several weeks. Katrina has also
shut down 92 percent of Gulf oil production and 83 percent of Gulf natural
gas production, according to U.S. government data. The Gulf region accounts
for about 25 percent of total U.S. oil production.

The decision by Bush to release 30 million barrels of crude oil from
America’s Strategic Petroleum Reserve and the pledge of 60 million barrels
of petroleum supplies from the International Energy Agency has done little
to dampen the price of crude oil in the international market. Furthermore,
it has had a negligible effect on the price of gasoline at US pumps which
has jumped over $3 a gallon.

To finance the recovery effort the US government will have to borrow more
money from international creditors. This will not only add to the burgeoning
US trade deficit which stood at $US650 billion in 2004, but also renders the
US dollar more vulnerable to a huge sell off. The implications could be more
catastrophic than the depression of the 1930’s.

Notwithstanding these difficulties, Bush has to contend with mounting
criticism at home. Questions around the slow response of the federal
government, the unpreparedness of FEMA, the neglect of the Afro-Americans,
the insufficient funds to strengthen the leeves, the absentee of the US
National Guard and the deployment of military personnel and assets in Iraq
threaten to become the bane of his presidency.

The situation in Iraq and Afghanistan looks no better for President Bush and
his corporate supporters. After having spent $500 billion dollars, America
is nowhere near to controlling the oil wells of Iraq or the Caspian region.
Nor has America made any substantial headway in crafting stable political
solutions for Iraq and Afghanistan.

The ferocity of the resistance in Iraq and Afghanistan is not only out of
control but threatens to derail the upcoming elections in both countries.
Initially, America was hoping to boost its presence in Iraq with the
deployment of an extra 20,000 troops. But because of Katrina the Pentagon
has revised the figure to 2000 troops for Iraq’s October referendum.

At this juncture, it would be extremely dangerous for America to redeploy
her troops and military assets to deal with the aftermath of Hurricane
Katrina.  This will have profound implications on US standing in the region
and beyond. A substantial withdrawal from Iraq and Afghanistan will
encourage other centres of power to fill the void left behind.

A retreat from Afghanistan will spur Russia and China to assert themselves
in Central Asia. Securing the energy reserves of the Caspian Sea and
removing American influence from Central Asia, Caucasus and Baltics will
seem more plausible to Russian and Chinese policy makers. China may even
become emboldened to take back Taiwan.

A withdrawal from Iraq may well encourage the EU and Russia to finish
America’s project of reshaping the Middle East and controlling the region’s
vast oil and gas supplies. But perhaps the biggest danger to US hegemony
comes from the emergence of the Caliphate which would spell the end to
Western or Eastern domination of Muslim lands.

In the coming days, America’s friends and foes will be watching this tipping
point. The outcome is no longer in Bush’s hands. The American public and the
Muslim ummah are the stake holders now. They will decide America’s fate on
the world stage.

September 5, 2005

Abid Mustafa is a political analyst who specialises in Muslim affairs