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Richard Cohen

Presidential Medals of Failure

By Richard Cohen
Thursday, December 16, 2004; Page A37

Where's Kerik?

This is the question I asked myself as, one by one, the pictures of the latest Presidential Medal of Freedom awardees flashed by on my computer screen. First came George Tenet, the former CIA director and the man who had assured President Bush that it was a "slam-dunk" that Saddam Hussein's Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. Then came L. Paul Bremer, the former viceroy of Iraq, who disbanded the Iraqi army and ousted Baathists from government jobs, therefore contributing mightily to the current chaos in that country. Finally came retired Gen. Tommy Franks, the architect of the plan whereby the United States sent too few troops to Iraq.

One by one these images flicked by me, each man wearing the royal-blue velvet ribbon with the ornate medal -- one failure after another, each now on the lecture circuit, telling insurance agents and other good people what really happened when they were in office, but withholding such wisdom from the American people until, for even more money, their book deals are negotiated. (Franks has already completed this stage of his life. His book, "American Soldier," was a bestseller.)


George Tenet, Tommy Franks, President Bush and L. Paul Bremer. (Ron Edmonds -- AP)

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I braced myself. Could Bernard Kerik be next? Would we skip the entire process of maladministration, misjudgments in office and sycophantic admiration of the current president and go straight to the celebrated failure? After all, what seems to matter most to this president is not performance -- certainly not excellence -- but a matey kind of loyalty and obsequiousness, of which Kerik had plenty.

"Bernie," Bush called out at a White House ceremony last year.

Kerik, who was walking away, stopped. "Yes, sir," he said.

"You're a good man," the president said.

It is this manly affection that explains how Kerik came to be nominated to head the Department of Homeland Security. The president liked him. He was the president's kind of guy: a wayward, messy kind of youth and then -- wow! -- this explosive career, coming out of the starting gate like Seabiscuit, another runt with something less than an elite East Coast pedigree. What's more, he had been recommended by Rudy Giuliani, another very tough guy who, everyone somehow forgot, is a man hobbled by awful judgment, in people as well as in himself.

Had the president given the awards a moment's thought, he might have asked himself what he was doing. A pretty good argument can be made that Tenet was incompetent. He not only failed to prevent the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 but he failed to protect the president from what has to be a historic embarrassment: the failure to find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.

As for Franks and Bremer, they cannot -- on the face of it -- both deserve medals. Since coming home from Iraq, Bremer has said the United States did not use enough troops there. "We never had enough troops on the ground," he confided to the Council of Insurance Agents and Brokers in October. This allowed the looting that broke out shortly after Baghdad was captured and the subsequent insurgency. For the record, Franks -- prodded by Donald Rumsfeld -- is the guy who never had enough troops on the ground. Which one deserved the medal? Easy. Neither.

The White House medal ceremony was really about George W. Bush. It had a slight touch of the absurd to it, as if facts do not matter and failure does not count. The War to Rid Iraq of WMD has now become The War to Bring Democracy to the Middle East. No one is ever held accountable, because the president will not do as much for himself. He admits no mistakes because he is convinced that he has made none. The terrorist attacks themselves, for which Tenet should have been sacked, are no one's fault because they cannot be the president's fault. He was warned. Condi Rice was put on notice. But, still, who could have known?

To make these awards in the face of failure -- the mounting American death toll, the awful suffering of the Iraqis, the looming possibility of civil war, the nose-thumbing of the still-at-large Osama bin Laden and the madness of making war for a nonexistent reason -- has the creepy feel of the old communist states, where incompetents wore medals and harsh facts were denied. For this reason Bernie Kerik -- three months in Iraq building a police force as good as rhetoric can make it -- seemed as likely and appropriate a recipient of a presidential medal as any of the others.

Maybe next year.

cohenr@washpost.com


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