Time for leadership and humility

September 18, 2005|By Robert C. Byrd

WASHINGTON - Catastrophe puts events into perspective. It shakes us. It sharpens our clarity of vision. The wrath of Hurricane Katrina, devastating for tens of thousands, has caused many thinking Americans to take a fresh look at the proper priorities for our country.

Who among us has not wondered if the efforts to rescue and evacuate Gulf Coast residents suffered because too many National Guardsmen have been detailed to Iraq? Who has not pondered why such a painfully slow response to a behemoth storm that we knew for days could turn the Gulf Coast into a cauldron of despair?

The pictures of callous neglect of our poorest and most vulnerable citizens flashed around the world. That image is certainly not one that reflects the humanitarian goodness and morality of the vast majority of the American people. Regardless of political party, it is time to look at where we are, and where we are going.

Few would now argue that the war in Iraq has improved the world's view of the United States. It was an ill-conceived conflict, distracting us from our proper course of bombing the terrorist training grounds of Afghanistan. The Iraq war has perpetrated the image of the United States as conqueror, not liberator.

Now, it is time for America to come home.

The internal political struggle in Iraq will play itself out until it either devolves into outright civil war or resolves into some sort of compromise which suits those who live there. The Iraqi people must slowly find their own way now.

To keep large numbers of American soldiers in Iraq much longer only earns the United States more enmity. It is time to begin to bring our troops home. We should begin with the National Guardsmen. They are part of our first-responder team in the event of a terrorist attack or if, God forbid, another natural disaster were to strike.

We cannot continue to commit billions in Iraq when our own people are so much in need, not only in New Orleans, but throughout America for everything from education to health care to homeland security to securing our borders. We need to stop making excuses and spinning facts and come to grips with the unpleasant truth. The United States government is failing the American people.

There are many missions to accomplish here on our own soil. We have neglected too much for too long. If only we had invested the money to rebuild those levees on the Gulf Coast, countless more Americans would be alive today. There are years of neglect of the basic infrastructure of the United States crying out for attention.

There is nothing more patriotic than taking a hard, honest look at our national priorities. A strong republic depends upon just that kind of soul-searching.

For too long, our great land has drifted toward Balkanization - a separation between the haves and have-nots, with the lower end of the income scale at risk from a tattered safety net, too few jobs and unaffordable health care.

I remember an America that used to feel more like one country, an America that shared sacrifice instead of passing it on to future generations. But today, it seems, there is no sense of shared destiny. It took nature's own weapon of mass destruction, a hurricane of incredible proportion, to remind us that we are all Americans and that our government has a moral obligation to serve us all.

As a nation, we must work together to repair our storm-ravaged Gulf Coast and salvage the lives of Katrina's victims. But we must do more. The federal government - a government of "we, the people" - should work with state and local communities to inventory our weaknesses. We must react in a crisis, but, for God's sake, let us finally understand that we have to anticipate the future and be unafraid to commit the resources to make us strong at home.

The lesson of Katrina most surely is that an ounce of prevention is worth several tons of cure. We cannot long remain a world power if we continue to let America crumble from within. The alarm bells are sounding, and we must answer the call. This is no time to play for partisan advantage - no time to circle the wagons and hunker down, inventing new excuses along the way.

It is time for real leadership. It is the season for true humility. The Bible says, "Pride goeth before destruction, and an haughty spirit before a fall." For years we have been getting it wrong in Washington, but, if we have the will, we can begin to get it right.

The American people deserve leaders with the honesty to take responsibility for failures and the wisdom to change when change is so obviously and urgently needed.

Robert C. Byrd, the senior Democratic senator from West Virginia, is the author of Losing America: Confronting a Reckless and Arrogant Presidency.

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