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Sunday, October 30, 2005

The Disaster of Loyalty Over Competence 

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According to Fitzgerald, Libby had conversations with at least seven other government officials about Joseph and Valerie Wilson that he did not disclose to the grand jury. Why were top White House officials and Vice President Cheney so concerned about an obscure former diplomat like Wilson? Because he had the temerity to offer public dissent. By showing how evidence of Saddam's WMDs had been cooked, Wilson undermined the very reason Augie Schroeder and the rest of the U.S. military went to war. He was more than "fair game," as Karl Rove called him. He was a mortal threat.

This has been the Bush pattern. Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill presciently says a second tax cut is unaffordable if we want to fight in Iraq—he's fired. Bush's economic adviser Larry Lindsey presciently says the war will cost between $100 billion and $200 billion (an underestimate)—he's fired. Army Gen. Eric Shinseki presciently says that winning in Iraq will require several hundred thousand troops—he's sent into early retirement. By contrast, CIA Director George Tenet, who presided over two of the greatest intelligence lapses in American history (9/11 and WMD in Iraq) and apparently helped spread "oppo ammo" to discredit the husband of a woman who had devoted her life to his agency, receives the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

The conventional Washington explanation is that this is just old-fashioned politics. As long as you don't lie to a grand jury, there's nothing illegal here. But the consequences of a bias for loyalty over debate—even internal debate—have been devastating. The same president who seeks democracy, transparency and dissent in Iraq is irritated by it at home. O'Neill tells his story in a book by Ron Suskind called "The Price of Loyalty," and that title is the missing link in explaining the failure of the Bush presidency. The price of loyalty is incompetence. Issues don't get aired; downside risks remain unassessed.

Instead of reaching out and encouraging disagreement, Bush let neocons like Libby and Paul Wolfowitz hijack his foreign policy. Amazingly, the pros and cons of invading Iraq were never even debated in the National Security Council. If you had doubts, like Colin Powell, you were marginalized. (Powell's former chief of staff, Lawrence Wilkerson, said last week that a "cabal" of isolated policymakers ran a government of dangerous "ineptitude.") Consider the case of Brent Scowcroft. According to last week's New Yorker, former president Bush has tried to arrange a meeting between his old national-security adviser (and best friend) and his son. But after Scowcroft wrote a 2002 op-ed piece titled "Don't Attack Saddam," the president has consistently refused his own father's request. Now we know that Bush's lack of curiosity has proved fatal.

Paul Schroeder says that well-meaning people offer their condolences over Augie, "then they whisper to us, 'We oppose the war, too.' Why do they whisper?" Why? Because until now, the Bush White House has successfully peddled the idea that dissent is somehow unpatriotic. Paul and his wife, Rosemary, take a different view. "I think it's more patriotic to speak up," Rosemary says. "If the emperor has no clothes, or the president has no plan—then you have to speak out. Otherwise, you're putting all these lives in danger for no good cause."

The good news about the president's bad week is that even his conservative backers are no longer willing to keep quiet when they think he's wrong. And Fitzgerald was so impressive that the normal White House response—to savage the critic—was not an option this time. So Karl Rove survives, but the fear he stoked is easing. Four years after September 11, we're beginning to get our democracy back.

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