The Haiti earthquake response, now in its eighth day, has already begun to illustrate the difficulties confronting American leadership in the Information Age and the Age of Terrorism. These two great trends, both prone to exploitation by extreme points-of-view and over-the-top rhetoric, put the United States in an unenviable damned-if-you-do-and-damned-if-you-don’t position. As such, a commitment to our values matters more than ever.
During a BBC news broadcast yesterday, callers from around the world offered deeply divided opinions of the response effort and the United States’ role in it so far. More than a few offered their own interpretations of the motivations behind these actions, which, it is safe to say, vary substantially from official accounts.
Mainstream U.S. media have been quick to criticize too, quickly highlighting what they consider both the extreme highlights and lowlights of the response efforts so far. Perhaps the most counterproductive of these efforts has been the tendency of media to compare and contrast the responses of different international teams.
I have been particularly struck by the effort to paint the United States response as lumbering, self-serving, obstructionist, and over-the-top. In contrast, some international teams have been lauded as nimble, quick, precise, and caring.
As William Cumming noted in his comment on my last post, this is a catastrophe of unprecedented proportions. Both Katrina and the Indian Ocean Tsunami pale in comparison. In the first instance, not due to the scale of the destruction but in the lower death toll. In the latter, not due to the immense human toll but in the widely distributed scope of the damage.
Port-au-Prince encompasses the worst aspects of both of these disasters: The earthquake wrought devastation that is both immense and intense because it is concentrated in such a small and densely populated urban area already affected by great deprivation.
Such a massive disaster requires an equally massive response. But this poses another difficult dilemma. I say dilemma not problem, because it cannot be easily solved. As American task force commander LTG Ken Keen put it, getting aid to Haiti is like “pushing a bowling ball through a soda straw.”
No one, not the United Nations nor even the United States, can erase the disadvantages accumulated in Haiti over time that complicate and indeed compromise the response there. A massive disaster requires a massive response. But it also requires understanding that this equation will remain unbalanced in proportion to the scope and scale of the catastrophe even as our compassion seems equal to the task at hand.
Quick, nimble, and precise responses, like those exemplified by teams from our allies Israel, Italy, and Germany will produce striking successes, but always on an isolated scale. Meeting lingering challenges requires logistical muscle and concerted coordination efforts.
And this is precisely where value-focused and battle-tested leadership is most important. In a disaster, when the normal order is so suddenly and completely disturbed and the senses of place and purpose become disrupted, command and control strategies may seem appropriate but they do little good when no one is in a fit condition to respond or lacks the capacity to do so.
Coordination requires a different set of skills. In military circles, we often talk of C4I: Command, Control, Communication, Cybersystems, and Intelligence (emphasizing analysis). These elements still have a role, but disaster response has a flip side that requires us to employ these resources differently. In disasters like Haiti, we need to think and act in terms of a different C4I paradigm: Clarification, Creativity, Collaboration, Commitment, and Intelligence (emphasizing synthesis).
Our values, not just the value we commit in terms of human, financial and material capital (which has been substantial, if not unprecedented), make the most difference in a disaster. When we resist the temptation to engage unproductive emotions by criticizing the efforts of others and instead take the opportunity to work with anyone else willing to lend a hand, we can achieve great things, if only on a small scale. Criticism requires no special skills, but neither does caring. If you can only do a little, make it sure counts.