For most of the folks with “1.20.09” bumper stickers on their cars, the date of the next inauguration represents the day they can stop obsessing over the depredations of George W. Bush. The 43rd president can head back to Prairie Chapel Ranch and a life of endless mountain-biking opportunities. His detractors can move on to new political battles, presumably featuring less calamitous results. It should be a great day all around.
But the end of the current administration will also mark the moment we get a full answer to what has thus far been a little-examined question: What happens to the folks who crafted and carried out Bush’s most radical and inept policies? Will they be shunned as the failures they are? Or welcomed into the bosom of the permanent Beltway establishment and a comfortable eminence grise post-White House existence?
So far, the post-government careers of top Bushworld apparatchiks supports the depressing proposition that public officials other than Mike Nifong face no significant consequences for their high-profile failures. Unpunished by their loyalist boss for screwing up war, intelligence, or national reputation while they actually worked for his government, some of the lowest lights among the departed Bushies have experienced the same lack of skepticism among private-sector hirers.
Former CIA chief George Tenet, Mr. Slam Dunk, is sharing his dubious wisdom with foreign service students as a “Distinguished Professor in the Practice of Diplomacy” at Georgetown University. He has shared a campus with Iraq war planner and onetime Pentagon aide Doug Feith, famously described by Gen. Tommy Franks as “the fucking stupidest guy on the face of the earth.” Onetime Justice Department aide John Yoo, who helped the United States earn its current reputation as a torture-loving colossus, is back at teaching law at the University of California. (Although he was recently sued by Jose Padilla.) Tantrum-prone U.N. Ambassador John Bolton and bumbling-Deputy-Defense-Secretary-turned-bumbling-World-Bank-boss Paul Wolfowitz are only the most prominent among those who have moved on to dispensing their dubious wisdom from perches at Washington think-tanks. And so on.
By historical standards, there’s nothing unusual about this. Whatever their ideology, top officials always move on to teaching, writing, and pontificating once their boss’s term expires. For the most part, it fits their skill set a lot better than, say, taking jobs at high-end restaurants or embarking on careers as fashion designers. Washington has no shortage of policy-focused think tanks; the rest of the country has no shortage of academic institutions who’d love the reflected glory of visiting professors who answer to “General” or “Ambassador” or “Mr. Secretary.” It’s hardly a new phenomenon: Robert McNamara, perhaps the most reviled architect of the Vietnam war, landed the same high-profile World Bank post as Wolfowitz. (Of course, he lasted a bit longer).
Even if it were unobjectionable that a demonstrably failed public official be handed an academic gown and a platform to teach the next generation, the sui generis nature of the Bush administration makes the octennial drift from government to establishmentarian think-tankery particularly troubling. In foreign policy, where predecessors from both parties mainly tweaked bipartisan policy in past administrations--muscle up the Cold War here, chill it out there, etc.--the Bushies embraced a radically redefined idea of the United States in the world: Preemptive war, unilateralism, torture, and a large permanent troop presence in the Middle East, among other things. Had the results been a success, their architects could snatch up the nicest offices on campuses and corporate headquarters from coast to coast. They failed, though, at the cost of thousands of lives and hundreds of billions of dollars. Should the radicals who dreamt up the policies go on to the same bland comfort as their predecessors?
If the Bush administration were a hospital, its officials wouldn’t have gone on to teach medicine after their benighted institution finally closed up shop. Rather, they’d have lost their medical licenses--perhaps for embracing unconventional and unproven surgical techniques, or perhaps for just being asleep in the O.R. Alas, there’s no license to opine about foreign policy.
But there is shame, if not for the Bushies, then at least for the folks who would hire them. A year from now, as the whole squad prepares to follow Bolton and Feith out the door, it might be worth taking some time out from the new, post-1.20.09 world and casting an eye back on the folks who created and enabled the Bush disaster. It presents the sort of opportunity that, in the hands of the well-organized political brawlers of the right, could lead to the establishment of a well-funded watchdog group monitoring university hiring announcements and speakers-circuit lectures. Why can’t the angry left match that? The group could gin up alumni letters to trustees of universities that hire failed Bushies, prompt few angry shareholder calls to the corporations who fund the think-tanks where others of them land, or just send out press releases about the “controversy” accompanying every trade association convention speech by a former torture advocate.
Sure, it would be a case of mean-spiritedly hounding people well after the fact. Yet it would ultimately be about ensuring accountability, which ought to still matter even after Bush leaves town.
Michael Currie Schaffer is working on a book about the pet industry.
By Michael Currie Schaffer