A lot of these Iraqis will be in danger, and some of them will probably be targeted, during the long period of waiting for their applications to be reviewed. Iraqis who work with Americans are at the top of the death list of jihadi groups, whose umbrella organization, the Islamic State of Iraq, recently declared its intent to settle scores as the Americans leave...The U.S. government has no idea of the identities and whereabouts of all the Iraqis who work for Americans there, or of which ones feel so insecure that they will want to be resettled here.Packer has been writing about this disaster in the making for some time now. Good journalism...but a disgrace. I think it's a mistake to see it in isolation, however. It reminds me immediately of another disgrace, which was the condition of basic record-keeping at Guantanamo; recall that part of the reason that the Obama Administration was unable to keep its promises was that they realized (at least according to published reports) that no one had any idea who most of the people were down there.
What's striking to me about both of these stories is that if there was any part of the government that the Bush Administration, including George W. Bush himself, cared about getting right, one would have thought it was detention of terrorist suspects and prosecution of the war in Iraq. Of course, we've also seen reports of the president's passive indifference in the cases of New Orleans and the financial crisis. It does raise the question of just how many more of these types of stories have not yet been uncovered, or at least publicized. There are a lot of federal agencies, and a lot of them aren't exactly going to be in the news unless something terrible happens on their watch. Just how much disarray was there? I can't emphasize enough that I'm not talking here about ideology, or even positions on issues of public policy. This is about basic competence in managing the government, and strong signs that it was sorely lacking for eight years.
A couple things...first, about Dick Cheney. I was talking to a staunch Republican former student a couple of weeks ago, and mentioned that one of the biggest surprises to me during the Bush years was that Cheney had turned out to be a lot less capable than I had expected. My student was utterly shocked that anyone could think that. This depressed me no end. He's an open-minded guy, and certainly not prone to believing that whatever Republicans do is always correct. But it was clear that within his information bubble, the possibility that Cheney just wasn't very good at his job had never been raised. Bush, too. He did recognize that things had gone wrong, but saw it more as policy choices and, to some extent, ideology. In my view? Even something such as torture, which I think was a (outside of the morality of it) disastrous policy, was far more a case of incompetence than it was ideology. What scares me about that is that if my former student represents the view of establishment Republicans, it's possible that they don't quite realize how damaging it was to them to have had a president not up to the job, and how dangerous it is to nominate another one.
The second thing is about information and the president. I'm hardly the first one to raise this, but: remember the infamous interview George W. Bush gave in which he explained that he didn't bother with newspapers because he got the real truth in his intelligence and other briefings? Does anyone believe that "we've lost track of the Iraqis helping us and they'll probably all die unless we do something" was included in any of those briefings? Here's the thing: most of you reading this post, reading this far down in this post, remember Packer's original reporting...maybe you read it in the New Yorker, maybe you read blog discussion of it, maybe you were talking politics with someone who read it. Now, I have no way of knowing whether Bush knew about it or not; for all I know, someone flagged it for him, and he took (ineffective, apparently) action. By his own testimony, however, there's a good chance that Bush never knew about it.
Being president is hard. People don't tell you what you need to know. They don't tell you enough that you even know which questions to ask. And you really can't be an expert on very much of what's going to come across your desk. Really -- what does Barack Obama or George W. Bush know about how to stop an insurgency, or how to help locals who assisted your occupying army, or how to respond to an earthquake in Haiti, or how to cap an offshore oil leak, or how to properly regulate complex financial products, or whether it's a good idea to put a permanent settlement on the moon, or whether anti-missile systems actually work, or what's the best way to fight drugs, or to drive down hospital costs, or to use federal incentives to get local schools to work better...can I stop now? They can't; there's still agriculture and trade and climate and inflation and AIDS/HIV (here and abroad) and housing and transportation and just go down the list. The brutal reality is that our presidents have very little expertise in almost everything they deal with. Take Obama: he knows Constitutional law, and worked on non-proliferation and some other issues in the Senate, but that's about it. Bush? Even worse; maybe some education policy, and perhaps a bit about business...that's about it. So presidents are constantly dealing with and relying on people who know far more than they do, even if they're quick studies (as Obama and Clinton are said to be) or incredibly hard workers (as Nixon was). And those people cannot, whatever Bush thought, be counted on to tell you things that reflect badly on them or the things that they're trying to get you to do.
Information is the weapon that presidents must use to compensate for their expertise deficit: information, and political skills and instincts. Information allows presidents to know which questions to ask, which questions his experts need to be asked. A president who believes that he gets the real scoop from his staff and the bureaucracy while the media is just a bunch of biased nonsense is one that is going to wind up with failure on the battlefield, war crimes and chaos in the detention camps, and a drowned city and drowned economy.
Of course, that doesn't mean that reported stories are always true. They are, however, almost always useful clues about something: either policy problems, or interest group stirrings, or bureaucratic clashes. And that gets to how information must be deployed by a president. George W. Bush should have -- a competent president would have -- known about Packer's reporting, confronted this generals about it, and followed up to make sure that if it was a real problem that it was solved. To do so effectively, to know when to confront and when to have someone ask around about it and when to find yourself another expert...well, that takes political skills. Most of what I've said here is from Richard Neustadt; I'll just quote him here on
the one sphere of expertise where "experts" were laymen: the shere of personal power for the President himself...When it comes to power, nobody is expert but the President; if he, too, acts as layman, it goes hard with him.
Expertise in power terms is not a substitute for expertise in policy; it offers some protection, though, from errors and from bafflements in policy appraisal. From those a President needs all the guarding he can get...And he, himself, the layman in most areas of policy, has no better protecter than concern for his own power. (Neustadt, Presidential Power, 124-125).*What Neustadt means here is that presidents can aggressively use the information available to them, both inside information (such as staff briefings) and outside information (such as press reports) to sense and avoid policy disasters. They'll do so, he believes, because policy disasters for the nation are political disasters for its president, and what presidents are really experts in is avoiding political disaster -- and the same thing goes, of course, about policy and political triumphs. Presidents, and not generals or economists or other wonks, are likely to be good at sensing threats to their electoral coalitions or to their governing coalitions on the Hill and on K Street. They're supposed to be able to read a newspaper story and realize which interest groups it threatens, and whether it's likely to be a major or a minor problem for those groups, and figure out what to do to avoid the problem, whether it's changing the policy or working with the group. They're suppose to have excellent political antennae. Presumably, they wouldn't have made it to the White House without them.
Unless, that is, the president isn't an expert. And so back to George W. Bush.
We're still early in the building of the history of the Bush years, but here's my guess. We'll find that what we saw was pretty much what was happening. He didn't act aggressively when faced with potential policy disaster -- whether we're talking about the summer of 2001 and terrorism, or 2003-2005 in Iraq, or 2004-2008 and Afghanistan, or 2007-2008 and the economy, or Katrina, or anything else. We're going to find that he strutted around a good deal, but was otherwise passive and indifferent, and easily manipulated by those around him. And my guess is we're going to find the big things that went wrong (terror, Iraq, Afghanistan, torture, the economy) joined by dozens of smaller things that slipped through the cracks for eight years. One last time: I'm not talking about ideology or policy, just the basic skills of the presidency. Frankly, I think Republicans and conservatives should be more angry about it than Democrats and liberals. Not because he deviated from pure conservative thought, but because his poor management of the office threatens to discredit their ideas just as Jimmy Carter's poor management of the office tended to discredit liberals and Democrats. Even more than they should be angry with Bush, they should be angry with the Republican governors and others who handed him the nomination in 1999-2000. They should take as their lesson from this never again to hand the nomination to someone who hasn't demonstrated the political skills, including the governing skills, needed to succeed in the White House.
Just how bad was the Bush Administration? As bad, alas, as its president, and I'm afraid that all evidence to date points to him being one of the very worst.
*For those who have not read Neustadt, it might seem odd to think that the problem with George W. Bush is that he was insufficiently interested in building his own power. To fully explain that would take another long post, one that I suppose I'll get to at some point, but the short version is: Neustadt wanted presidents, working within the Constitutional system, to amass as great an ability as possible to influence the government. Cheneyism, and the variants practiced by Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon, especially, but all presidents are prone to it, is about working around the Constitution to amass great authority for the government to do all sorts of things...but not necessarily about personal influence for the president. The former (I would argue) is what gets good government; the latter yields Vietnam, Watergate, Iran-Contra, and Gitmo. But as I said, that's the conclusion, not the argument, which I'll have to save for later.