No Semblance of Accountability

by , January 15, 2005

Perhaps the most striking thing about the official acknowledgment that the two-year hunt for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq is over is the fact that it was greeted by most with a collective shrug of the shoulders and an almost cheerful defense of what many of us view as utterly indefensible. “Based on what we know today,” White House spokesman Scott McClellan told reporters, “the president would have taken the same action because this is about protecting the American people.”

Sorry, Scott, but what we know today suggests all too strongly that invading Iraq was not about protecting the American people. Not even close. Even if Saddam Hussein, vile as he was and is, had possessed weapons of mass destruction, his third-rate tinpot regime, weakened by an eight-year war with Iran, by defeat in the first Gulf War, and by a decade of economic sanctions, would have posed little or no threat to the American people. Americans were put in harm’s way and more than 1,300 have died as a result of a deliberate decision to invade a country whose neighbors did not especially fear it, and whose chances of delivering even a glancing blow to the world’s sole remaining superpower were close to zero.

You can even make a case that the invasion of Iraq increased the potential dangers of nuclear proliferation – not to mention that it stole resources from the hunt for the actual perpetrators of the 9/11 terrorist attack on American soil. Certainly the other countries the president arbitrarily chose to include in his overwrought “axis of evil,” Iran and North Korea, have taken a perverse lesson from the invasion of Iraq. They are acting as if they believe the best way to avoid an invasion from a superpower willing to invade Iraq on the flimsiest of pretexts is actually to have nuclear weapons, or at least to have made substantial progress toward acquiring them.

No Accountability

The most troubling aspect of the not-with-a-bang-but-a-whimper end to the search for the fabled WMD is the utter lack of accountability for an intelligence failure that, in retrospect, assumes almost epic proportions. Former CIA director George Tenet, who reassured the president, based on intelligence he had to know was shaky, that the presence of WMD was a “slam dunk,” was allowed to retire with honors and encomia.

Secretary of State Colin Powell, who misled the United Nations with a presentation full of holes and gaps, will leave his post with words of praise ringing in his ears, and will no doubt continue to be held in high esteem by Americans, insofar as the periodic “most admired” polls reflect reality. Sure, it’s likely that he was pushed out. But he wasn’t pushed out for assisting in the campaign of disinformation that led most Americans to support the invasion of Iraq. If anything, he was pushed out for being an occasional voice of reason and caution.

Condoleezza Rice, whose public appearances with the memorable tag line about whether reluctant warriors were willing to wait until the smoking gun was a mushroom cloud – although if she were the least bit competent or informed she would have known this was a misleading and far-fetched image – did so much to build prewar hysteria, has been named secretary of state, arguably the most prestigious position in our government after president. Truly, this is an administration in which failure by any commonsense measure is rewarded richly.

Then there’s the president himself, who bears the ultimate responsibility for a decision based on a tissue of misinformation and outright deception. In an interview with Barbara Walters scheduled to air tonight, he seems incapable of taking the kind of full responsibility a genuinely strong leader would take. He’s got to spread it around to others. “I felt [felt??!!],” he is reported to say, “like we’d find weapons of mass destruction – like many others here in the United States, many around the world. … We need to find out what went wrong in the intelligence gathering. … Saddam was dangerous, and the world is safer without him in power.”

At least he stays on message. But this is not a political campaign in which he is trolling for votes and hanging on the next poll results. It is a war in which Americans have been killed and wounded. A responsible, accountable leader wouldn’t whine that others seem to have been mistaken, too (especially when his administration did so much of the exaggerated and politically shaded reporting that led so many to believe that if a president was so darned certain it was likely there was something to it). He would acknowledge that the rationale for war was at least in part mistaken, accept full responsibility (and maybe fire a few people), and resolve to move on toward a constructive result despite the difficulties into which his mistaken decision-making had plunged the country.

Well, the American people had the opportunity to turn this guy out of office. The alternative was hardly inspiring, of course, especially on the crucial subject of the Iraq war. But it does also seem as if holding him accountable – polls before the election showed majorities believing the Iraq war, in retrospect, might not have been worth fighting – would have been just too harsh for many Americans. He wasn’t John Kerry, who had his own problems, and he seems to have meant well. So don’t punish him for misleading Americans into quagmire and slaughter.

The weaselly approach to leadership was evident even in the denouement to the snipe hunt for WMD. As this story in the Washington Post that ran on Wednesday notes, “Officials who served with the Iraq Survey Group (ISG) said the violence in Iraq, coupled with a lack of new information, led them to fold up the effort shortly before Christmas.” If the Post hadn’t hunted this story down and printed it, followed by the catch-up effort by other media so typical on major stories, would the administration ever have announced that the search for WMD was over on its own?

One feels almost like Bob Dole in 1996, losing an election dreadfully and shouting, “Where’s the outrage?” into the wind, being ignored by all and sundry. Does anyone care that our leaders led this country into war based on false premises?

No Shame

Not only has there been no accountability demanded of those who committed such errors of judgment, there seems to be no sense of embarrassment as the major prewar justifications for invading Iraq have crumbled one by one. There was no operational link to al-Qaeda? There turned out to be no weapons of mass destruction? Never mind. Saddam was a really, really bad ruler and we’ve found mass graves that documented the fact. We’re building democracy and transforming the Middle East – even as the White House purposely lowers expectations about just how democratic and representative the elections scheduled for the end of the month are likely to be.

This is a far cry from any remotely sensible understanding of how a free society operates. In a truly free society, the essence of freedom is responsibility. You make your choices without outright coercion, and you live with the consequences of your choices without blaming others or assuming that others have some kind of obligation to bail you out when things go badly.

This refusal to demand anything resembling accountability used to be anathema to conservatives. But conservatives don’t seem to have any clear principles these days, or they place their faith in leaders rather than principles. So the general conservative response to the absence of WMD has been a resounding “So what?” Admit that a leader might have made a mistake? Hold a leader accountable? This is modern America, where state power assures that if it is not quite possible to repeal reality, it is at least possible to make sure that no leader ever pays a real price for a blunder.

Resignation or Abdication?

I can understand a certain sense of resignation. The invasion of Iraq committed the United States to at least try to establish a functional and stable government there, a task that is turning out to be more difficult than any of our leaders had imagined. It is likely to take a while, and crying over prior mistakes won’t make the job any easier.

It should be the case that acknowledging mistakes could at least make it less likely that one will make the same or similar mistakes in the future. But perhaps the American time horizon is too short for this mechanism even to operate.

Are we so accustomed to being misled by our political leaders that we don’t expect any better, that we greet yet another example of government failure with mute resignation? If so, we have come to a sorry place in our political life – unless we have made the first step toward acknowledging the reality that political leaders do not hold the key to success, prosperity, and building a decent society, but are more likely to be a recurrent hindrance in the achievement of any such positive goals.

Read more by Alan Bock