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Loyalty, Competency, and Democratic Government

In early May, Thomas Friedman’s column in the New York Times chastised President Bush for undermining American government with his obsessive focus on loyalty over expertise as a desirable characteristic of high level officials — for surrounding himself with “yes men”. While I agreed with Mr. Friedman’s lament, I thought his column focused too much on internal psychological factors that might explain that obsession — factors about which we can do nothing — and under-emphasized possibly correctable external factors that exacerbate the tendency.

My particular concern was and is the failure within the current hyper-partisan environment to distinguish between policy disputes in the political realm — public and private debates among politicians and citizens over what policy should be — and policy disputes among those whose job it is to implement the policies that the body-politic has chosen to support. Citizens disputing policy politically is honorable and patriotic. Public servants, either elected or not, undermining implementation of politically decided policy from within the government through chicanery and obstruction is not. I find the latter a source of far more concern for the future than the mental foibles of this particular President, and I sent this to Mr. Friedman in hopes he might pick up the broader theme. He has not so far.

17 May 2006

I agree with your assessment that Bush has undermined us with his preference for loyalty over expertise. Would that it could have been different.

But I have to ask a question: might that obsession with loyalty not have been so pronounced — might the President have been more willing to rely on the experts within the civil service and within the political opposition? — if they hadn’t been, from the very beginning, so obviously and agressively working to undermine from within any policy he might choose to enact?

There are many policies (perhaps most policies) on which I disagree with the President, but it seems clear that many of his political opponents, and alas many nominally neutral civil servants within the government, who share those disagreements have taken it as their strategy to torpedo his attempts to implement policy within the framework of governing rather than to dispute them in the political arena. And that, more than the policies themselves, is both dishonorable and damaging to our national interest.

Had the CIA bureaucracy (to take the example you cite) not taken it upon itself to subvert politically-determined policy through the mechanisms of selective leaks and policy-contradicting public pronouncements, would the President have been less inclined to install a loyal hack at the helm? Perhaps not, but I can’t help but think that was a large factor in his thinking.

Even before he took office, those who hated George Bush (and hate is not too strong a word in this case) announced not only that they had no intention of treating him with any deference or respect but, also, that they intended to apply equal disrespect and defiance toward the office of the Presidency for as long as he held it. That was bad enough coming from the political left outside the government, but when that attitude appears among unelected civil servants within the government as well — among those whose job it is to impartially implement the policies determined within the political realm by the elected Executive and the elected Legislature — it is closer to treason than to patriotism.

If I found myself trying to govern in that environment I might prize loyalty as well.

(C) Copyright 2006, Augustus P. Lowell

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