No Blame, No Shame
by George Packer May 14, 2007
Why has it become impossible to admit a mistake in Washington and accept the consequences? The last time a senior government official quit over his own job failure was more than twenty years ago, when Robert McFarlane, President Reagan’s national-security adviser, resigned during the Iran-Contra scandal and, taking accountability to a Roman level, swallowed an overdose of Valium, out of “a sense of having failed the country.” (He survived.) Today, this mostly forgotten act of personal responsibility seems rather heroic. Recent years have seen such a steep decline in shame that a book like George Tenet’s “At the Center of the Storm: My Years at the CIA,” for which the author was paid four million dollars, has become an expected destination at the end of a well-trodden path that leads from disaster through obfuscation and defiance to a well-rewarded self-justification.
The Bush Administration has come close to perfecting the art of unaccountability. Tenet’s memoir shows just one of several styles of evasion lately on display: last month, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales’s admission that mistakes were made in the firing of eight United States attorneys had the air of a schoolboy hoping that bogus contrition would get him off the hook. “I accept full responsibility,” he told the Senate Judiciary Committee, meaning only that he was sorry he had allowed the matter to become such a nuisance. He spent the next five hours explaining—through repeated memory failure and a steady refusal to acknowledge the contradictions and lies in which he kept entangling himself—why he bore no responsibility for anything else. Afterward, the President praised Gonzales for his “very candid assessment” and said that it “increased my confidence in his ability to do the job.” This is unaccountability as pure chutzpah, and so far it seems to be working.
Paul Wolfowitz, the World Bank president and former Deputy Secretary of Defense, in answering charges that he favored his girlfriend by giving her a promotion and a hefty pay raise at the bank while holding impoverished countries to a high standard of good government, has taken a different approach. Wolfowitz, in his most recent statement, prepared for an investigatory panel, conceded nothing, and denounced a “smear campaign” waged by his enemies inside the bank. “I acted transparently, sought and received guidance from the bank’s ethics committee, and conducted myself in good faith in accordance with that guidance,” he asserted. Assertion is the neoconservative style of avoiding accountability: don’t give an inch or they’ll tear you to pieces. Wolfowitz’s ally Richard Perle once said that to express public doubts about the Iraq war “would be fatal.” And, of course, the World Bank scandal is all about Iraq.
Wolfowitz is as responsible as anyone for that catastrophe, having been nearly perfect in getting every aspect of it wrong. When he left the Pentagon for the World Bank, in 2005, many saw an analogy to the move made by Robert McNamara in 1968, at the height of the Vietnam War. But McNamara was seeking atonement, while Wolfowitz wanted vindication—further evidence of the diminishing power of disgrace in American politics. Wolfowitz, who continues to enjoy the President’s full support, has never uttered any serious self-criticism about the war. Like Al Capone, who was nailed on tax evasion, and Alberto Gonzales, who as the White House counsel opened the door to torture, Wolfowitz is being hounded for the blunder because he couldn’t be got for the crime. The press is more comfortable with—in fact, is better at—catching important people in fibs and flip-flops than in making independent judgments about something like a war.
George Tenet’s style is more subtle and complex. In his book, not admitting a mistake begins with admitting a mistake, then creating an impression of anguished self-scrutiny, which almost immediately dissolves in a shower of equally anguished claims of mitigating circumstances. Addressing the C.I.A.’s failure to adequately alert the F.B.I. that a known terrorist, soon to be a 9/11 hijacker, had a visa to the United States, Tenet writes, “No excuses. However,” he adds, “overworked men and women who, by their actions, were saving lives around the world all believed the information had been shared with the F.B.I.” It is the same with the slam-dunk quote, with Colin Powell’s C.I.A.-approved speech to the United Nations, with the Medal of Freedom the President gave Tenet: the author agonizes just long enough to absolve himself of real blame. Tenet’s self-defense is that he’s a good-hearted, hardworking guy. And we can only assume from the book’s gentle treatment of Bush that he still has the confidence of the President.
These styles of unaccountability would be private moral failings if the stakes were lower. But under the Bush Administration no senior civilian official or military officer has been held responsible for what will probably turn out to be the greatest foreign-policy disaster in American history. (Donald Rumsfeld was thrown overboard only after he became too much trouble politically.) Those in highest authority have been kept in office (Dick Cheney), promoted (Gonzales, Condoleezza Rice), honored with medals (Tenet, General Tommy Franks, Paul Bremer), or sent off with encomiums (Wolfowitz, Rumsfeld). Generals who held command over chaos and looming defeat have received additional stars and more powerful posts, such as George Casey, Jr., who was promoted earlier this year to Army chief of staff. Recently, an Army lieutenant colonel and Iraq veteran named Paul Yingling published an essay in the Armed Forces Journal, entitled “A Failure in Generalship.” Yingling’s open indictment of a military leadership composed of yes-men was the first by an active-duty officer during the Iraq war, and it expressed in analytical terms a simmering rage among lower-ranking soldiers. “A private who loses a rifle suffers far greater consequences than a general who loses a war,” he wrote.
Eventually, war enforces its own accountability—though heads might not roll, bodies will render a final judgment—but the point in punishing failure is to correct mistakes before a war is lost. Bush’s refusal to do so has come at an unimaginably high cost, which will include his own legacy. The most common explanation for this stance is his loyalty to people loyal to him, but folly on this scale is never entirely personal. Bush represents the apotheosis, and perhaps the demise, of politics as war by other means. Bring overwhelming force to the political battlefield without apology, this deluded ideology holds, and reality—even a real war—will take care of itself. ♦