Katrina and America’s tipping point

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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 pulverize 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 neighboring 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 levees, 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 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 centers 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 stakeholders now. They will decide America’s fate on the world stage.

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