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The Buck Doesn't Stop
by Richard Cohen
The Washington Post
April 6, 2004

What happened March 25 was that one Washington institution quoted another to ask a third about accountability. The questioner was PBS's Jim Lehrer, who cited the late James Reston of the New York Times to ask Donald Rumsfeld why no one in Washington ever resigns for just being wrong. Rumsfeld, oozing cockiness, turned the personal into the theoretical and waltzed away from the question. I don't blame him. If, say, a Japanese government had performed as badly as the Bush administration has, there would be no one left to turn out the lights.

In his questioning of Rumsfeld, the nimble Lehrer brought up Lord Carrington, the British defense minister at the time Argentina seized the Falkland Islands. Carrington admitted he had underestimated the threat and his resignation was therefore in order. If Rumsfeld had applied that rule to himself, he would be thrice gone -- once for Sept. 11, 2001; once for the absence of WMD in Iraq; and once more for not having enough troops in Iraq. If he were his own subordinate, he would fire himself.

But 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.

In his interview with Lehrer, Rumsfeld made the point that the United States does not have the British cabinet system or the Japanese culture regarding shame and accountability. 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. In spirit, he echoed Bush, who once said, "Had I known that the enemy was going to use airplanes to kill on that fateful morning, I would have done everything in my power to protect the American people." Yes, and had Custer known he was attacking so many Indians, he might have chosen to wash his hair that day instead.

What is so perturbing about this administration is not that no one of note has resigned or been fired -- and some of them certainty 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.

2004 The Washington Post Company

Posted: April 26, 2004


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