How Scary Is This?

By BOB HERBERT

New York Times

October 24, 2005

The White House is sweating out the possibility that one or more top officials will soon be indicted on criminal charges. But the Bush administration is immune to prosecution for its greatest offense - its colossal and profoundly tragic incompetence.

Lawrence Wilkerson, a retired Army colonel who served as chief of staff to Secretary of State Colin Powell, addressed the administration's arrogance and ineptitude in a talk last week that was astonishingly candid by Washington standards.

"We have courted disaster in Iraq, in North Korea, in Iran," said Mr. Wilkerson. "Generally, with regard to domestic crises like Katrina, Rita ... we haven't done very well on anything like that in a long time. And if something comes along that is truly serious, something like a nuclear weapon going off in a major American city, or something like a major pandemic, you are going to see the ineptitude of this government in a way that will take you back to the Declaration of Independence."

The investigation of Karl Rove, Scooter Libby et al. is the most sensational story coming out of Washington at the moment. But the story with the gravest implications for the U.S. and the world is the overall dysfunction of the Bush regime. This is a bomb going "Tick, tick, tick . . ." What is the next disaster that this crowd will be unprepared to cope with? Or the next lunatic idea that will spring from its ideological bag of tricks?

Mr. Wilkerson gave his talk before an audience at the New America Foundation, an independent public policy institute. On the all-important matter of national security, which many voters had seen as the strength of the administration, Mr. Wilkerson said:

"The case that I saw for four-plus years was a case that I have never seen in my studies of aberrations, bastardizations, perturbations, changes to the national security decision-making process. What I saw was a cabal between the vice president of the United States, Richard Cheney, and the secretary of defense, Donald Rumsfeld, on critical issues that made decisions that the bureaucracy did not know were being made."

When the time came to implement the decisions, said Mr. Wilkerson, they were "presented in such a disjointed, incredible way that the bureaucracy often didn't know what it was doing as it moved to carry them out."

Where was the president? According to Mr. Wilkerson, "You've got this collegiality there between the secretary of defense and the vice president, and you've got a president who is not versed in international relations and not too much interested in them either."

One of the consequences of this dysfunction, as I have noted many times, is the unending parade of dead or badly wounded men and women returning to the U.S. from the war in Iraq - a war that the administration foolishly launched but now does not know how to win or end.

Mr. Wilkerson was especially critical of the excessive secrecy that surrounded so many of the most important decisions by the Bush administration, and of what he felt was a general policy of concentrating too much power in the hands of a small group of insiders. As much as possible, government in the United States is supposed to be open and transparent, and a fundamental principle is that decision-making should be subjected to a robust process of checks and balances.

While not "evaluating the decision to go to war," Mr. Wilkerson told his audience that under the present circumstances "we can't leave Iraq. We simply can't." In his view, if American forces were to pull out too quickly, the U.S. would end up returning to the Middle East with "five million men and women under arms" within a decade.

Nevertheless, he is appalled at the way the war was launched and conducted, and outraged by "the detainee abuse issue." In 10 years, he said, when this matter is "put to the acid test, ironed out, and people have looked at it from every angle, we are going to be ashamed of what we allowed to happen."

Mr. Wilkerson said he has taken some heat for speaking out, but feels that "as a citizen of this great republic," he has an obligation to do so. If nothing is done about the current state of affairs, he said, "it's going to get even more dangerous than it already is."