The tragedy still unfolding in the southern United States has elicited an outpouring of support from Cuba to Kuwait.  It has stirred fears of global oil shocks and of their economic consequences. Hurricane Katrina has also had an immediate, profound impact on the image of the United States in the world.  It has prompted a debate on the seeming fragility of the world’s only superpower.  Below we supply some representative comments from the global press.

 

Foreign papers have echoed Americans’ sentiments of disappointment and bewilderment regarding the U.S. government’s response:

“The images coming from Louisiana bring to mind the tsunami that hit Southeast Asia in December 2004.  It was difficult to imagine that the same spectacle of destruction and desolation, the same human tragedy, could happen in a developed country, especially in the most powerful one in the world…‘the superpower,’ as a former French Minister of Foreign Affairs said, despite its economic and military potential that it is sometimes quick to deploy overseas, is incapable of dealing with a domestic catastrophe of this dimension.

“The debate is starting to mount in the United States: is it really reasonable to spend hundreds of millions of dollars to wage war in Iraq when America is incapable of protecting its own citizens?”

Le Monde (France), “Bush en accusation.” September 3, 2005. 

“The local leaders have been more victims than authors of their state’s misfortunes.  The response of the main organization responsible for handling the disaster, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, has been widely viewed as inadequate.  Katrina was an important test for the agency, its first since it was incorporated into the vast bureaucracy of the Homeland Security Department, and it has not done well. 

 

“Nonplussed television viewers have been treated to the surreal sight all week of Michael Brown, the agency head, praising the efforts of his staff even as dead bodies decomposed in the summer heat.”

 

—Gerald Baker, The Times (London).  “Stakes go up for President who strummed while a city drowned.” September 3, 2005. 

 

 

International journalists believe Katrina’s aftermath has already damaged the Bush administration’s image and credibility:

 

“President George W. Bush faced increasingly bitter political challenges Sunday from local and state officials in the battered Gulf Coast as he struggled to show mastery over a disaster that his administration now acknowledges almost surely claimed thousands of lives and has yet to bare its full, ugly toll.  A Louisiana senator, Mary Landrieu, said she was so angry about federal failures and second-guessing that if she heard any more criticism, even from the President, she might ‘punch’ him.

 

“White House advisors scrambled to confront a confluence of critical developments – including the hurricane, sagging support for the Iraq war and record-high gas prices – that politicians say could severely challenge [Bush’s] second-term legislative plans.”

 

—Brian Knowlton, The International Herald Tribune. “Challenges to Bush Leadership mount as poll numbers slide.” September 5, 2005. 

“Paradoxically, it’s the memory of [President Bush’s] management of September 11th that may haunt him.  The comparison returns regularly in the commentary and the analyses that remind people that in 2001 he knew how to unite the country, even if he waited three days to visit the ruins of the Twin Towers of New York.  Today, the country is united behind the victims and against the government. 

 

“Bush’s side, at the very least, suffers from Iraq disenchantment but also of the expectations he created: in 2001, it was a novice president who pleasantly surprised everyone in a time of crisis; four years later, a president taken by surprise in his second term has no excuse.”

 

—Jean-Louis Turlin, Le Figaro (France).  “George Bush tente de réparer les dégâts politiques.” September 5, 2005. 

 

 

Almost all international papers highlight the racial and humanitarian dimension of the crisis; some use it to score points on what they see as the hypocrisy of the government:

 

“Some are calling it America’s ‘black tsunami.’ The images from hurricane-struck southern United States are stark…[a]s much of America seethes in shame and indignation, there is plenty of finger-pointing about why the victims all seem to be black…[b]ut what is riling the black community is why Washington was slow to attend to the problem after the hurricane.  There is also resentment at suggestions from federal officials that the affected people bore responsibility for their fate because they failed to evacuate.  With no means of transportation or alternate accommodation, where could they have gone? ask local residents. 

 

“There is also anger at repeated television footage showing blacks looting stores and supermarkets…[o]ne analyst angrily suggested that if 500 nordic blondes were starving and dehydrated with no help from any quarters, they would have done the same thing.”

 

—Chidanand Rajhatta, The Times of India.  “Katrina is a black tsunami.” September 3, 2005. 

"‘Stuff happens,’ said the US defense secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, when called to respond to the looting taking place in Baghdad after the American invasion…[t]he official response to the looting in New Orleans, last week was, however, quite different.  The images were not of ‘newly liberated Iraqis’ making away with precious artifacts, but desperate African Americans in a devastated urban area, most of whom are making off with nappies, bottled water, and food.  

 

“So these are not the scenes of freedom at work, but anarchy to be suppressed…Katrina…exposed the lie of equal opportunity in the US.”

 

—Gary Younge, Dawn/Guardian News Service (Pakistan). “Tragedy belies claims of equal opportunity: US hurricane.” September 6, 2005. 

 

 

Sarah Parkinson works at Foreign Policy magazine at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.