Just As I Thought

No Fault Presidency

Richard Cohen in the Post asks the question I’ve asked many times: when is the Bush administration going to take any responsibility… for anything? He boils it down to an almost absurd conclusion. Or is it?

…from the president on down, no one in this administration ever admits a mistake or concedes having been wrong. Dick Cheney, whose slogan should be “Wrong Where It Matters,” nonetheless takes to the stump to lambaste John Kerry. After all, the vice president is the very man who warned us, assured us, promised us that we must go to war with Iraq because, among other things, that nation had an ongoing nuclear weapons program. None has yet been found — and no apology from Cheney has yet been issued. He was mistaken or dishonest. We await his choice.

… For all the talk about the buck stopping in this place called “here,” it usually never stops at all. But demanding resignations begs the question. It is not heads the American people want, it is humility.

That is what’s so lacking in the Bush administration. The real reason — the terribly secret reason — the administration was oh-so-slow to recognize the terrorist threat was precisely the quality so abundant in Rumsfeld: smugness. The Bushies knew it all. The very fact that the Clinton team told them to make terrorism job one led them to denigrate it: What did those Clinton jerks know?

Instead, the Bush team had its eye on the ball — missile defense and, of course, China and Russia. Missile defense was considered crucial, and opposition to this Reagan-era program was deemed both ideological and shortsighted. But it turned out that the “missiles” that struck the United States had the logos of American and United airlines on their fuselages, and no star wars system could have stopped them. It would have taken hard spy work and, as they say, boots on the ground in Afghanistan. It would have taken a little humility.

That quality is precisely what commended the not-terribly-humble Richard Clarke to many of the Sept. 11 families: He apologized. He was sorry for what happened and sorry that his efforts had not somehow managed to avert a calamity. Lehrer cited Clarke’s example to Rumsfeld, who just didn’t get it. In fact, he recited all the reasons why Sept. 11 was really not his — or anyone else in the Bush administration’s — fault.

… What is so perturbing about this administration is not that no one of note has resigned or been fired — and some of them certainly deserve the ax — but that there is not the slightest hint that anyone (except Colin Powell) appreciates that mistakes were made not out of sheer bad luck but because the assumptions, driven by ideology, were so bad.

Terrorism, not missile defense, should have been the top priority; al Qaeda was and remains the threat, not Iraq. (That explains why Saddam Hussein is in jail while bin Laden is still on the loose, having slipped the noose in Afghanistan because the Pentagon left the job to locals.) Iraq was going to be a cakewalk — the Middle Eastern version of the liberation of Paris — and somehow that has not happened. In another country, some officials would quit in shame. In this one they can’t even quit being smug.

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