Topic: Government & Politics

On Accountability

Accountability is a basic ethical value, and if a web site could have eyebrows (I suppose a web site could have eyebrows, now that I think about it), this one’s would be raised painfully high at President Bush’s extraordinary statement that he takes his re-election as affirmation that nobody in his administration needs to face accountability for the prosecution of the war in Iraq. At least, that’s a fair interpretation of his comments to the Washington Post, even with allowances for the President’s often creative use of his native tongue:

The Post: In Iraq, there’s been a steady stream of surprises. We weren’t welcomed as liberators, as Vice President Cheney had talked about. We haven’t found the weapons of mass destruction as predicted. The postwar process hasn’t gone as well as some had hoped. Why hasn’t anyone been held accountable, either through firings or demotions, for what some people see as mistakes or misjudgments?

PRESIDENT BUSH: Well, we had an accountability moment, and that’s called the 2004 election. And the American people listened to different assessments made about what was taking place in Iraq, and they looked at the two candidates, and chose me, for which I’m grateful.

Accountability is an ongoing state in the pursuit of ethical conduct. The concept that there can be an “accountability moment,” after which no accountability remains is frankly bizarre. We are all accountable for our actions at all times, and those whose decisions are made under the public’s trust, involving the use of public resources, the risk of lives, and the welfare of the nation, have to meet an especially strong standard of accountability. The absence of accountability encourages recklessness, arrogance, lack of care and irresponsibility. No organization, government, or individual can be ethical, or trusted to be ethical, without a commitment to accountability.

Bush’s statement is so off-key for someone in a leadership position that one is tempted to make excuses for it. What could the comment possibly mean that wouldn’t justify inspiring alarm in an American citizen? Perhaps the President is equating accountability with punishment, and is saying that having made the decision himself not to fire individuals who had made serious mistakes and miscalculations related to the Iraq conflict, the public had one final shot at firing them and their boss too, and passed on it.

OK…it certainly isn’t the most perceptive analysis of the election imaginable, or even a very coherent one, but at least it doesn’t mean that the President of the United States believes that those in power only face accountability at the ballot box, and the rest of time can make wrong, hasty, ill-considered or stupid decisions willy-nilly without personal or professional risk. We must hope that at some level not revealed by leaks to Seymour Hersh, the President has subjected Donald Rumsfeld and the military high command to accountability for the prisoner abuse situation; that George Tenet did receive something more unpleasant than the Medal of Freedom for providing such miserable intelligence regarding Iraqi weapons; and that all of the other administration officials, appointees and staff-members who committed botches, indiscretions, blunders, misstatements, errors and outrages have had to face the music and acknowledge their failures internally. We know very few of them have been fired or forced to resign, but there are other ways of being held accountable.

We must hope, but we must also demand. Being put in a position of having to hope that one’s national leader is being characteristically inarticulate rather than expressing a chillingly irresponsible theory of governance is unacceptable. Mr. Bush, and everybody who works for him, had better see themselves as accountable if they are going to continue to work for us. For that is what trust, one of the cornerstones of ethics, is based upon…the belief that people will do the right thing on our behalf because that is their duty, not because we are in a position to punish them for doing otherwise. Democracy, and America’s representative system of government requires trust. Trust requires that leaders hold themselves accountable, election or not.

In a democratically elected government, the “moment of accountability” is always. There is ample precedent for us to conclude that President Bush’s statement to the Post was a verbal misfire of a half-baked thought. But if the President of the United States was really foreswearing accountability, the most rabid and vociferous Bush-bashers are owed sincere apologies from every quarter, and we are on notice that a rogue government has broken out in Washington.


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