The US military has long done more than fight wars. It's built roads, run jobs programs, snagged drug dealers, integrated schools, created the Internet, and provided hurricane relief. Why? It's seen as the government's only lean, mean, can-do machine.
Now President Bush asks if the military should also take the lead in domestic disasters, even serving as police - conducting arrests, searches, and seizures of American citizens.
Exhibit A: the breakdown of order in New Orleans after Katrina broke the levees, when the city's police and the Louisiana National Guard both were caught unprepared.
The Pentagon is studying the president's idea - rightfully wary of taking on one more nonmilitary duty that might drain its ability to wage war. And the idea also raises the danger of martial law being imposed for political purposes, with a possible erosion of civil rights. GIs are taught to kill, not read Miranda rights. Army Lt. Gen. Russel Honore warned his troops as they walked the streets of New Orleans, "This isn't Iraq," advising them to keep their guns down.
But such concerns would not even need to be raised if Mr. Bush and Congress simply challenged an unspoken assumption: that the United States is incapable of having an organization that can act as effectively and efficiently in a time of major crisis as can the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines, and Coast Guard.
With the possibility of more frequent and powerful hurricanes as well as a major terrorist attack on a US city, the country needs a force dedicated specifically to disasters, but it's not the military.
The National Guard and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) are government bodies tasked with coping with such large-scale disasters. But their weaknesses during Katrina may indicate deeper problems that call for the US to find a better way to replicate the military's skills in organization and discipline. Either the National Guard or, more likely, a part of it, needs to focus solely on disaster preparedness (that is, guard troops could no longer serve as military reinforcements abroad), or a new entity, under the control of governors, might have to be created.
Congress has struggled to find the best way to cope with large disasters. In 1992, the military assisted after hurricane Andrew in Florida. That same year, President Bush used the military to restore order in Los Angeles after the verdict in the Rodney King trial. In 1996, as terrorist threats were growing, the military was tasked with creating rapid-response teams to help local and federal officials detect and neutralize weapons of mass destruction. And after Sept. 11, 2001, Congress set up the Department of Homeland Security, bringing FEMA into its fold (and weakening it). Meanwhile, the National Guard was proven inadequate during Katrina, as nationwide its units are temporarily stretched by deployments to Iraq.
All this suggests the need to avoid the easy course of "bringing in the troops" during disasters. Instead, the US can redefine existing organizations or create new ones with the same ability to plan, train, and exercise centralized command as the military. It may be time to have dedicated, well-run, local entities with a single, core mission of coping fully with major disasters.