Daniel Drezner links to a couple of newspaper articles detailing the failings of the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq: Ugly CPA autopsies. (See also Drezner’s earlier piece: More on CPA recruitment.) In particular, Drezner talks about the hiring practices of the people who staffed the CPA, and who seem to have very much valued Republican ideological purity and personal loyalty to Bush over actual expertise. The result? A bumbling operation staffed by fresh-faced 20-somethings being paid back for work they did in the 2000 Bush campaign. Notably absent: people who spoke Arabic, had worked in the region before, had demonstrated organizational or administrative skills, or knew anything at all about the difficult work of nation building.
This highlights something I’ve noticed before: the way the Bush administration’s focus on rewarding loyalty over competence has affected everything the administration has (and hasn’t) been able to accomplish.
I’ve seen this myself in the workplace: Managers who reward loyalty over performance, building organizations that look capable enough from the outside, but which are curiously paralyzed in the face of real-world challenges.
It’s not just that the wrong sorts of people get hired. It’s that those people are retained even in the face of demonstrated incompetence. Worse, the right sorts of people get systematically driven out. People with actual expertise have an annoying habit of disagreeing with the poor decisions of the loyalty-valuing but competence-challenged person atop the hierarchy. But that sort of emotionally insecure leader isn’t looking for underlings who will challenge him with their own unique perspectives. He’s only looking for yes-men (and -women) to help him stave off those who would expose his failings.
That’s the Bush administration all over. In Against All Enemies, Richard Clarke talks about the revolving door atop Bush’s counter-terrorism operation, where person after person with demonstrated ability has been driven out by a culture that punishes those willing to identify and fix problems, rather than competing to see who can praise the leader’s infallibility the loudest.
Key positions in the Bush administration are staffed by people who have failed again and again, yet who retain the president’s support for a single reason: they remain loyal to Bush. Rumsfeld, Rice, Powell, Ashcroft: All of have made horrific mistakes while working for Bush, and have done so repeatedly. But they’ve also done the one thing that keeps them in their positions of awesome responsibility: remained loyal to Bush, focusing 100% of their effort and attention on the key task of shoring up his reputation in the face of a hostile universe bent on exposing his incompetence.
The problem with this, of course, is that our government faces much more important challenges than the preservation and embellishment of the fiction that Bush deserves to be president. But as long as key positions are staffed by people focused 100% on that particular Sisyphean task, those challenges will continue to go unmet.