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Policy Success Reaps Few Rewards…


John Styles, via Chris Blattman:

About a week after the earthquake, economist Tyler Cowen wrote that Obama looked like the “Haiti president”:

Obama will (and should) do something about this situation … Yet he will have a festering situation on his hands for the rest of his term … Obama now stands a higher chance of being a one-term President. Foreign aid programs are especially unpopular, especially relative to their small fiscal cost … Just as it’s not easy to pull out of Iraq or Afghanistan, it won’t be easy to pull out of Haiti.

But it’s now clear that Haiti won’t affect Obama’s political future in any significant way. In part, this is because the worst fears about the earthquake’s aftermath weren’t realized; Haiti didn’t descend to utter lawlessness. Still, it faces extraordinary challenges. The problem is that these are largely invisible in American news and thus among American voters, who are therefore less likely to hold Obama accountable for Haiti’s struggles.

In the immediate aftermath of the earthquake, my co-blogger Galrahn repeatedly argued that this was a key moment for the Obama presidency. Failing to formulate a competent foreign policy response to the earthquake would result in a diplomatic and humanitarian disaster that would affect US standing in the hemisphere and, quite possibly, generate waves of refugees on American shores.

This disaster appears to have been avoided; things are hardly great in Haiti, but the state hasn’t completely collapsed, and relief efforts have in general been considered successful. The response of the USN in particular has been extraordinary. Haiti will not, as Cowen and Styles suggest, dominate the Obama presidency. It’s worth noting, however, that Styles and Galrahn might offer different explanations for why the effect of the Haiti earthquake will not endure. Styles argues that Americans simply don’t care about Haitians; if relief operations had failed to forestall a greater disaster, Americans would have taken little note (except perhaps insofar as the refugee crisis would directly impact Gulf communities). Galrahn, I suspect, would suggest that Haiti has ceased to be a story because relief operations have been so successful. No one remembers disasters that don’t occur, or recalls waves of refugees that never show up.

These explanations aren’t mutually exclusive. Styles is certainly correct to argue that the American public is less than fully attentive to disasters that happen to brown people. However, I think that Galrahn is also right, and that there’s a very serious dilemma in this story for advocates of good governance. Sensible, responsive, well-staffed, well-funded governance tends to prevent horrible things from happening. When horrible things do happen, authorities respond quickly and effectively. Crisis prevention and effective crisis response, however, are inherently less interesting and less attention-getting than failed crisis response. If the 9/11 hijackers had been captured prior to conducting their attacks, very few people outside the intelligence community would have much recollection of a crucial policy victory. If the Bush administration had conducted adequate preparation for Katrina and responded effectively, there’d be relatively little shared memory of the disaster.

Success and failure in crisis response, consequently, have asymmetric political effect. The Obama administration’s response to the Haiti earthquake, in my view, has been a resounding success for responsible, capable governance. No one will remember that in six months. Bush’s response to Katrina will endure in the political memory for decades. On the one hand this is (politically) good for progressives, given that conservative efforts to gut governance tend to result in horrible disasters. On the other hand, because policy and execution failures stick in the mind longer than successes, it’s difficult to convince the general public of the importance of a responsible approach to government. In the rhetoric of anti-statist nutjobs, Katrina actually becomes an argument against adequate government, while success in Haiti fades from history.

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