It’s the incompetence, stupid

The Christmas Day attack on Northwest Flight 253 taught us as much about efficient government as it did about national security

In George Washington’s farewell address, the president warned of the growing influence of partisanship and the dangers of entangling alliances abroad. In Dwight Eisenhower’s goodbye, the president intoned menacingly about the creation of what he called a “military-industrial complex” and its undue influence on the American political landscape. George Bush’s farewell address was devoted to one topic — terrorism — and though the tenor was optimistic, the message was clear: Our enemies remain, and they will attack us again.

Though shocking to the moral conscience, the Christmas attack on Flight NW253 was, in some sense, utterly unsurprising. Regardless of whether such acts are called terrorism or “man-made disasters,” not even the most dovish of peaceniks could forget about the existence of Al Qaeda or doubt the persistence of its aims. Even the method of the attack itself was the quintessence of rote: PETN explosive smuggled aboard an airplane, nearly identical to a shoe-bombing attempt made years earlier.

And yet, despite the constant coverage of terrorism in the media, despite the entirely ordinary nature of the attack, despite the frequent public warnings of its near inevitability, as Americans watched their televisions on December 25th, the overwhelming feeling was: “How could this happen?”

As the details slowly made their way to press, frustration grew. Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the would-be bomber, was the very model of a modern terrorist. Authorities knew about the threat he posed well ahead of time. The attempt got as far as it did because agencies failed to communicate with each other. Either this attack was 100 percent preventable, or collectively we must admit our powerlessness in stopping future attacks.

In the aftermath, conservative hawks (most notoriously, Dick Cheney) were quick to jump on the president, accusing him of having grown complacent with the risks he was elected to manage. While this may have succeeded in further raising the issue of national security to the fore of voters’ minds (an issue on which Republicans poll favorably against Democrats), it doesn’t appear that anyone not already pre-disposed to believing Democrats are soft on terrorism actually changed their minds. Yemen, the country from which the attack originated, fights terrorism with a ferocity unique to those who feel the knife at their throat; their security forces routinely engage in warrantless search and seizure, torture, and extra-judicial executions. Even if Obama had ever pressured the Yemenis to tone down their brutality, many Americans would think him justified, even in hindsight of NW253.

What has irked many Americans is not the sense that the president is a big liberal softie, but that he, much like his predecessor, cannot by his will alone command government to be competent. What has shattered is not our sense of security, but the false impression we had that Obama would make the trains run on time. A promise implicit in Obama’s presidential campaign was that he, in stark contrast to the experience of the past eight years, would head a smoother, more efficient government and better perform the sorts of duties that Americans unanimously agree should be performed. The Obama administration was to be transparent, competent, and free of corruption — a gleaming example of government at its best. For No Drama Obama, this sort of failure was simply not supposed to happen.

Even more damning than the failure itself was the public relations spin that was attempted immediately afterward. Both Robert Gibbs, the White House press secretary, and Janet Napolitano, the Secretary of Homeland Security, asserted that “the system worked,” a claim so patently absurd that it must have required at least one willful act of ignorance to make it, either in believing that the system actually worked, or in believing Americans would believe the system worked. As the spiritual successor to “Brownie, you’re doing a heckuva job” and “Mission Accomplished,” “The system worked” was a painful reminder that governments are governments — messy, inept, and reflexively defensive.

Americans have a tendency to ascribe every little failure and victory to the commander-in-chief. In the popular mind, presidents personally command the economy, wage our wars, and simultaneously govern every federal agency from the CIA to the FDA. In reality, the president is one man, and his abilities and powers are quite limited. He does not stand astride economic currents, taming them with his indomitable will, he does not involve himself in the nitty-gritty of military operations, nor does he control the abstract grand forces that contribute to strategic success or failure, and most certainly he lacks the hours in the day to strictly oversee the large and labyrinthine organizations that perform the day-to-day of the government’s work.

In that context, saying, as Obama does now, that intelligence failures are systemic, and thus persistent no matter who is president, is a valid form of defense. But the defense, however valid, is unsatisfying. Not only does it imply that on some level we are powerless to stop bad things (the antithesis of “Yes We Can”), but it also suggests that Obama does not deserve credit for potential future victories and perhaps that Bush did not deserve blame for many of his past failings. After all the negative attacks Democrats lobbed at Republicans and all the promises Democrats made, NW253 smacks of a great deceit revealed. Contrary to what we had been told, Democrats do not hold the magical keys to a better government.

Republicans may very well get good mileage out of NW253 as a national security issue. Given the frequency with which many of them had warned Obama an attack was coming, that is their right. But the bigger lesson here is that governments are big, ugly, and stupid, and remain so even when a pretty-faced reformer enters the White House.