Flirting With Disaster

Can the United States learn from Israel about how to be resilient? Tevi Troy, CEO of the American Health Policy Institute, a former domestic policy adviser for President George W. Bush, former Deputy Secretary of Health and Human Services and current author of “Shall We Wake the President? Two Centuries of Disaster Management from the Oval Office” (Lyons Press. Kindle Edition), thinks so.

Troy, who is also a presidential historian spoke at Kohelet, an Israeli public policy think tank earlier this month about his book. In doing so he discussed Israel’s responses to terrorist attacks and the recent fires (started by Palestinians) as examples how any president should react to an unplanned disaster that could define their presidency and public perception of their leadership.

As Troy demonstrates in his engaging book, turning the President into the nation’s help desk is a waste of time and authority. And ineffective.

To be sure, in the past an immediate response was neither possible nor expected. Troy notes that when an earthquake hit Missouri in 1811 James Madison didn’t find out for two months. After the Johnstown Flood, of 1889 where 2,000 died and thousands more became ill from contaminated water President Harrison expressed concerned while noting that Pennsylvania’s governor had a big job ahead. Apart from the Surgeon General of the United States sending three train loads of disinfectant that, as they say, was that.

As digital media made news more immediate (yes, radio and TV are both digital technologies of a sort) and American entered into a period of war and economic depression, presidential leadership was elevated.  Woodrow Wilson ignored warnings that the Spanish Flu was being carried and spread by troop ships coming back from Europe. The outbreak cost 650000 American lives and President Wilson not only ignored the outbreak, he covered up his role in causing it. Fast forward to Franklin Roosevelt who, as Troy points out, saw his role and that of his policies as reassuring Americans that life would get better. Such actions may not have addressed the causes of the Depression but the boost in American confidence was likely a crucial element in the successful and swift national mobilization for World War 2.

Troy points out that what Roosevelt produced or sought to promote was resilience. Resilience, as Aaron Wildavsky notes, “is the capacity to cope with unanticipated dangers after they have become manifest, learning to bounce back.” However, the expansion of government produced anticipation: regulations and law made to predict and prevent potential dangers before damage is done.

So it is tempting for a President to respond to disaster in this fashion.  Speeches and regulations generate headlines. But such actions do not make us safer or better prepared.

Troy observed that Prime Minister Netanyahu’s successful response to the 2016 terrorist triggered fires was the due to a concerted effort to develop such resilience following the failure to control the 2010 fires. After a thorough investigation of the response – conducted by the government and independent organizations under close media scrutiny — Prime Minister Netanyahu created a National Fire Authority under the jurisdiction of the Public Security Ministry. Israel added 300 new firefighters, an additional 30 positions in the fire commission and 90 new firetrucks. In addition, 22 special rescue units were established, as was an aerial firefighting unit with eight aircraft, under the command of the Air Force.  And then under the Fire Authority, all first responders began to drill regularly. 

Much was made of the international support in fighting the 2016 fires started by terrorists.  Yet similar help appeared in 2010.  The difference was in 2016, such support was deployed as part of broader operational strategy jointly developed by the Israeli Air Force and first responders from overseas that reduced response time and maximized impact.

Troy noted that though this year’s fires were harder to control and larger than the fires in 2010 the response was quicker and limited building damage and loss of life.  In 2010 the Prime Minister could only make speeches and show up without anything concrete to back up promises.  By 2016, Israel had a diversified response to fires, faster communications among first responders and the citizenry and resources in place to help people and begin rebuilding.

Troy warns against the facile conclusion that the best way to protect people is always to reduce in advance whatever hypothetical risk may be imagined.  Rather successful presidential responses consist mainly of enabling people to cope in a resilient fashion with dangers when, as, and if they manifest themselves.  Unfortunately – as Troy points out — presidential action or inaction can make such resilience more difficult to generate.   President Bush’s flyover of Hurricane Katrina and President Obama’s eagerness to return to the golf course after ISIS beheaded an American on YouTube are two examples of how presidential behavior can sap the moral of a nation when facing a disaster or crisis.

Presidential leadership is most effective in helping citizens bounce back.  And resilience is a combination of preparedness and knowing what disasters can be prevented or mitigated and what disasters require nimble responses and learning from experience.

Ultimately, Troy recommends that President’s must combine clear limits in using presidential leadership with careful planning not for specific disasters but for resilience itself.   Presidents must not over promise nor over prepare or overregulate to keep Americans safe from everything.  Such leadership weakens resolve and creates dependence.  Moreover, precautionary policies increase the chances that government will be asked to do more but be less effective.  The Deep Water Horizon response, epitomized by the refusal to allow oil spill clean up ships into the Gulf of Mexico because they violated antiquated union rules, is an example of such a situation.

Prime Minister Netanyahu meets with firefighters after fire in Beit Meir, near Jerusalem www.upi.com
Prime Minister Netanyahu meets with firefighters after fire in Beit Meir, near Jerusalem www.upi.com

As Troy notes, “The loss of hope, optimism, and faith in government can carry the longest and most dangerous result.”   Troy concludes that “when disaster strikes, we all will have to keep ourselves, our families, and our loved ones going— without staff, without a massive bureaucracy, without an army— with just ourselves. It is resilience, coupled with smart preparation, that will get us there.”   Rather than waking the president, the role of government should be to ensure we are not flirting with disaster but responding admirably to its challenges.

About the Author
Robert Goldberg is the Vice President, Centre for Medicine in the Public Interest and co-founder of program for Israeli biotech startups “Healthcare Technological Innovation- From Idea to Commercialisation."
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