08/01/2007 11:59 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

The High Price of Winging It on Iraq and Katrina

For some time now, I've been thinking about what Iraq and Katrina have in common. We lump them together now as the twin debacles of the Bush presidency. I saw Charles Ferguson's Iraq documentary No End in Sight yesterday and it helped gel a couple of things. One was the disengagement at the top not just from difficult facts or reality in some faraway place, but from the workings of government itself - in other words, the tools leaders need to make stuff happen in the world.

In both Iraq and in the response to Hurricane Katrina, there was an expectation from the top that certain things would just ... happen, as if by magic.

In Iraq, a civil society could be created without doing any preparation or work - or rather, by discarding the preparation and work that were done and winging it. No End notes that the people put in charge of Iraq first met less than 2 months before the invasion, and had no plan, no phones, no desks for a good while. When they began making some modest progress, it was undermined by Paul Bremer - also winging it. In New Orleans, the Bush administration all but dismantled FEMA, then blithely assumed the agency could do its thing when a mega-disaster hit. When it fumbled, that still didn't seem to penetrate the minds of the people in the White House. Like rebuilding Iraq, it wasn't their job. And now, it's the idea that the city can be rebuilt and sustained by sending a lot of money down there, without much attention from the top.

Why? Is it that the president never really was responsible for much, had so much just handed to him earlier in life? Dick Cheney's obsession with power as an end in itself, unmoored from actual results? Something else?

Everybody remembers Ron Suskind's famous 2004 interview with an unnamed administration official:

"That's not the way the world really works anymore," he continued. "We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you're studying that reality--judiciously, as you will--we'll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that's how things will sort out. We're history's actors . . . and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do."

Those words are darkly humorous now. But history really is filled with "actors" who have challenged and changed the conventional wisdom of their time. To do it though, they had to understand how to use power, how to make the instruments at their disposal work. And that usually doesn't involve winging it.