When Political Trouble Looms, Call in the Marines

President Bush, his aides say, is interested in holding a “national discussion” over the need for legislation to give the regular military a greater role in dealing with catastrophic natural disasters.

If the White House is true to form, the need for a “discussion” is probably superfluous because the president has already decided and Bush press secretary Scott McClellan gave a pretty good preview of what that was — a “trigger” to allow for the military to assume full responsibility for the immediate response.

One must then quickly ask why, if the Pentagon is going to be taking charge of disaster response, do we need the Department of Homeland Security? This seems a recipe for competition and overlap.

The chaos following Katrina is given as a reason for new disaster mandate for the military, but in the case of Katrina, if the regular military were needed, all the president and the Louisiana governor had to do was say so. And under the post-9/11 National Response Plan, local military commanders had the authority to comply.

For good and sound reasons, the law prohibits the military from engaging performing law enforcement functions, but in cases like the post-hurricane looting that overwhelmed local police, Bush has the authority to send regular troops in to restore and enforce order.

The U.S. military has large numbers of skilled and disciplined people, ample assets like trucks, ships and aircraft, mobile support facilities like shelter, kitchens and hospitals and, most importantly, the ability to mobilize in a hurry. It would be stupid, even inhumane, to ignore this kind of help in a crisis. But it can be used under existing law.

But making the Pentagon the lead agency in relief of major disasters gives the military a new and different role, one that varies greatly from its fundamental mission _ to fight and win wars. What the military does at the most basic level does, as its high-spirited youngsters put it, break things and kill people. It’s not pleasant but there it is. In the relief role, the military support units become primary.

That’s one reason the military is skeptical of this plan. Another is that this erodes a longstanding tradition of the military staying out of civilian affairs. Of necessity under the “trigger” that would put the military in charge, the commanders would supersede elected public officials, the governors and mayors.

And then there’s the problem of “mission creep” _ the more the military is used, the more things it will be used for.

Maybe Katrina showed a need for tweaking the National Response Plan but it showed none at all for a rewriting of such basic laws governing the relationship between military and civilians as the Posse Comitatus Act.

(Contact Dale McFeatters at McFeattersD(at)SHNS.com)