Thursday, April 9, 2020

"Victory has a hundred fathers, but defeat is an orphan"

The headline is a quotation from Galeazzo Ciano.  I could just as easily have headlined this post with the opening lines from Rudyard Kipling's famous poem "If":

If you can keep your head when all around you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you . . .

In both cases, I'm referring to the frantic, almost frenzied attempts by the mainstream media and the Democratic party to blame President Trump for the failure to anticipate or foresee the coronavirus pandemic, and prepare adequately to combat it.  Failures there have been, and yes, some of them do fall at the feet of this administration:  but they go back much further, to involve several previous administrations, both Republican and Democrat.

Washington insider magazine Roll Call published an interesting article analyzing the realities of this issue.

Much blame has fallen on President Donald Trump for his handling of the coronavirus pandemic. Critics point to his administration’s early defenestration of a White House pandemic preparedness task force established by the Obama administration and his whipsawing, frequently off-the-cuff approach to the widening public health emergency.

But a variety of longtime experts in disaster response who spoke to CQ Roll Call warn that the country risks missing some of the lessons from what is the largest public health crisis in a century if opprobrium is heaped solely at Trump’s feet. Rather, they say, there is blame to be shared, going back decades through multiple presidencies and on both sides of the political aisle.

Blind spots in the U.S. national security culture led to the earliest signs of the crisis being downplayed, exactly when an inter-agency process centered in the White House should have been shifting into high gear. To avoid such a bureaucratic failure again will mean permanently elevating disaster preparedness and response to a footing similar to that given to more traditional bastions of U.S. security such as diplomacy, intelligence collection and the military, experts say.

. . .

Trump’s former national security adviser John Bolton has come under considerable criticism for his 2018 decision to disband the pandemic preparedness directorate at the National Security Council, which was formed by the Obama White House following the 2014 West Africa Ebola epidemic. But less well known is that both the Obama and George W. Bush administrations disbanded early in their presidencies similar NSC task forces established by their respective predecessors only to rush to reestablish them when confronted with a serious biological threat.

. . .

In 2015 [under the Obama administration], some 60 Senate-confirmed government positions had biodefense or outbreak preparedness in their official job duties. But it wasn’t the full-time job of any one official, according to Larsen, who did the bureaucratic analysis.

Larsen compared the situation of having dozens of officials with some biodefense and preparedness responsibilities but no one top official to having 25 assistant coaches on a football team but no head coach. “Can you imagine any of your teams getting to the Super Bowl if they don’t have a head coach? You’ve got to have a head coach to coordinate everything,” he said.

There's more at the link.  It makes interesting reading.

I daresay there'll be plenty of claimants trying to take credit for doing whatever works to deal with the present coronavirus crisis.  There'll be very few who will accept the blame for whatever went wrong.  That applies on both sides of the political aisle.

I can confirm, from my more limited perspective and experience, the problem of getting administrators and bureaucrats to think about security problems before they become real issues.  As a sector officer for civil defense in one of South Africa's major cities (a part-time, volunteer position, I might add, which speaks volumes in itself - there was more than enough work to justify it being a full-time, paid post, but there was no budget for that), I saw it many times.  A couple of examples:

  • Urban terrorism was an ongoing threat in South Africa at the time.  I raised the issue, at a monthly planning meeting, of a tall office building in downtown Cape Town that had underground parking, including an exposed multiple-thousand-gallon tank of diesel fuel in the basement to run the building's emergency generator.  Vehicle access to the basement was by card key, with only a flimsy pole barrier preventing unauthorized entry.  A boy on his bicycle could have broken through it, if he tried hard enough - and there was no guard on duty anywhere nearby, and no camera covering the entrance, so none of the security guards in the building would have been any the wiser.  I asked what a car bomb would do if it were parked next to those thousands of gallons of diesel, particularly if incendiary ignition sources such as white phosphorus were included in the explosive cargo.  My concerns were dismissed as unrealistic by the building owner, who caustically pointed out the "unnecessary expense" that would be involved in adding layers of protection.  This was less than a week after a terrorist bomb had exploded in a local township.
  • One of my teams did a security survey of a large office building.  They identified a major security risk in the lobby of each floor.  The walls had been carpeted, for some reason of interior decor - including around the lift doors and the fire escapes.  The carpet used, and the glue sticking it to the walls, were both of synthetic manufacture.  They took samples and sent them to a laboratory for testing.  Sure enough, the report came back that when they burned, they gave off phosgene - potentially lethal to anyone trying to breathe in the vicinity (it was used as a poisonous gas in combat during World War I).  The team urgently recommended that the carpet and glue be replaced by something safer.  They were overruled on the grounds of cost, and the "negligible" likelihood that a major fire would ever occur there.  (This, as I said, at a time when urban terrorism was a real threat.)

As long ago as 1929 J. L. Schley observed, "It has been said critically that there is a tendency in many armies to spend the peace time studying how to fight the last war."  I suppose the same tendency applies to dealing with other crises.  As soon as a problem is managed and vanquished, the lessons learned from it are filed in a drawer somewhere, and the bureaucrats, administrators and time-servers go back to their usual ways.  That, more than anything, is what bit us, hard, when the coronavirus came along.  Human nature being what it is, I daresay the same tendency will bite us again in some years' time, when the next crisis rears its ugly head.




Old NFO said...

Yep, follow the money, as always. Those people cost 'money' that administrations would rather spend on (insert program here)... Until it's too late.

Chris said...

Situations like those you described are why so many (grade B) movies start with the lone, brave protagonist trying to get someone in authority to listen. Problem is there is not enough money to fix every potential problem. It would be nice if architects (don't get me started) gave any thought to the function of life safety systems (my field) instead of just how pretty or cutting-edge-design the building is.

STxAR said...

About the only army I can think of that spent peace time working to avoid fighting the last war was Germany in the 30's.

Anonymous said...

Money quote:

"“If we had had enough tests in the first place to be able to understand the breadth of the outbreak and to be able to understand where it was going through testing and contact tracing, we might not have had to have had such extreme social isolation recommendations, Bajema said. “I think we might have been better positioned to have had an experience more like South Korea and Singapore.”