What Responsibility?

By Richard Cohen
Thursday, September 15, 2005

Following the botched Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba in 1961, John F. Kennedy took full responsibility for the debacle. "I am the responsible officer," the president said. Similarly, in 1983, Ronald Reagan said "I accept responsibility" for the catastrophic terrorist attack on the Marine barracks in Beirut. Now, as if in the grand tradition of presidents affirming that the buck stops where Truman said it did -- the Oval Office -- George Bush has taken responsibility for the shortcomings in the federal effort regarding Hurricane Katrina. If he means what he said, then Katrina washed up a whole new George Bush.

But a little skepticism is in order here. After all, the George Bush we have come to know sorely lacks a rearview mirror. Not only is he disinclined to look back, but when he does so he sees nothing but triumph and astounding successes. Even his debacles -- and the war in Iraq for some reason comes to mind -- get transformed from what they once were to what he would like them to be. We are getting murdered in Baghdad not on account of weapons of mass destruction but to bring democracy to the Middle East. Who would not want to die for that?

For Bush there is only today and tomorrow. Yesterday is someone else's responsibility -- maybe still Clinton's. Even in his White House statement saying "I take responsibility," he also said that "Katrina exposed serious problems in our response capability." Funny, I thought the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, did that. It was then that we learned about inadequate communications systems, among other things. It was then that our minds were focused on the incomprehensible and that people -- not to mention governments -- started thinking about the evacuation of whole cities. Bush makes a lousy Boy Scout. Prepared he wasn't.

If Bush were the CEO of a major corporation, his board would fire him. It would want to know what the hell he's been doing for the past four years and what he's done with the untold billions given to the Department of Homeland Security. After seeing how the feds stood by while sick people died in New Orleans hospitals, the board might want to fire itself -- but that is not practical. The board in this case is the American people.

Actually, I find myself feeling a bit sorry for Bush. The man must be perplexed about why he is being held accountable for a natural disaster and not for one wholly of his making. The war in Iraq, after all, is entirely his doing -- everything from its inception to its execution, which have both been inexcusable examples of incompetence. The very basis for the war -- Iraq's alleged weapons of mass destruction -- turns out to have been nonexistent. And that was followed by a military campaign that was insufficient to meet the challenge. Outside the Bush administration itself, it is virtually impossible to find anyone in Washington who believes enough troops were sent to do the task.

Why should we believe that Bush will take names and boot buttocks about Katrina when he has not done so over Iraq? On the contrary, the principal architects of the inadequate military plan remain in the Pentagon -- Rumsfeld and his crew. Others have gone on to plushy appointments -- the World Bank for Paul Wolfowitz, for instance, or the entire State Department for Condi Rice. Still others have been given the once-hallowed Presidential Medal of Freedom, now as tainted as a pardon from Bill Clinton.

If anyone at the top has been held responsible for an intelligence debacle without precedent, then his name is unknown to me -- or, for that matter, to the president. Only the hapless Michael Brown failed to understand Bush. If he had hung on to his FEMA job, in another month or two Bush would surely have honored him on the White House lawn. ("Brownie, you did a heck of a job.")

Anyone in Congress who thinks this administration is capable of really investigating itself has learned nothing from the past four years. Bush will not acknowledge mistakes because, probably, he doesn't think he makes them. For him, good intentions are everything. But people died in the wake of Katrina because Washington could not get helicopters or trucks to hospitals. Bush says he is willing to take responsibility for that. Maybe so. But it's not responsibility that matters, it's accountability -- a kick instead of a medal. From what we know about Bush, it is history -- not the president -- that will have to deliver that.

cohenr@washpost.com


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