Among its myriad failings, the Bush administration has repeatedly gotten it wrong when it comes to getting it right. Over the last eight years, there has consistently been no penalty for those who have gotten things - even the most important things - wrong, and no reward for those who have gotten things right.
Call it Bush Darwinism: survival of the unfittest.
Over the weekend, Barack Obama made an encouraging move to reverse that unintelligent design by appointing retired General Eric Shinseki to be the Secretary of Veterans Affairs. While having had a long and distinguished career, Shinseki is most famous for getting it right when it came to Iraq - and for suffering the consequences typical in the Bush administration for getting it right: being shown the door.
Shinseki, you may recall, was the general who told Congress in February 2003 that it would take "on the order of several hundred thousand soldiers," to occupy Iraq, because "we're talking about post-hostilities control over a piece of geography that's fairly significant with the kinds of ethnic tensions that could lead to other problems."
That's about as wise and prescient an assessment as you can get. But wisdom and prescience were two attributes that had little place in the Bush White House, so Shinseki's sober judgment was quickly ridiculed by Donald Rumsfeld and Paul Wolfowitz, the Tweedledum and Tweedledumber of the Iraq war. Rumsfeld preferred going "to war with the Army you have, not the Army you might want or wish to have." And Wolfowitz, whose crystal ball said the U.S. would be greeted as liberators and that the war would pay for itself, called Shinseki's estimation "outlandish" and "wildly off the mark."
For being so spectacularly wrong, Rumsfeld was rewarded by being allowed to stay in his job for three-and-a-half more years. Wolfowitz's reward came in the form of a cushy appointment to head the World Bank. Too bad they didn't do an even worse job -- maybe they'd have earned the Presidential Medal of Freedom, like Paul Bremer and George Tenet did.
As detailed by James Fallows, Shinseki responded to Rumsfeld's and Wolfowitz's bullying with stoic dignity: "Despite being unfairly treated, despite being 100% vindicated by subsequent events, Shinseki kept his grievances entirely to himself."
In discussing the Shinseki appointment on Meet the Press, Obama gave a nod to the karmic justice aspect of it:
BROKAW: He's the man who lost his job in the Bush Administration because he said we will need more troops in Iraq than Secretary of Defense Don Rumsfeld thought we would need at that time.
OBAMA: He was right.
It will be nice if "he was right" continues to be something that qualifies one for a job in the Obama administration instead of the cause for dismissal it was under Bush.
Obama's commitment to reversing Bush Darwinism isn't as clear when it comes to his economic team. As Frank Rich notes, Obama's economic brain trust -- Tim Geithner, Larry Summers and Robert Rubin - didn't exactly exhibit a Shinseki-like foresight when it came to the financial meltdown.
And, as was the case with Iraq, it's not as if there weren't those that got it right when it came to the economy. Economists Joseph Stiglitz, Nouriel Roubini, Nassim Taleb, and Paul Krugman did. And financial blogger Tanta (aka Doris Dengey), who raised a red flag about Citigroup in late 2006, while Rubin continued to rake in mega-millions on the bank's increasingly risky moves. Tanta died last month at 47 -- much too soon, but long enough to know she had gotten it right.
In his 2006 book The Black Swan, Taleb wrote: "The financial ecology is swelling into gigantic, incestuous, bureaucratic banks -- when one fails, they all fall. The increased concentration among banks seems to have the effect of making financial crises less likely, but when they happen they are more global in scale and hit us very hard... I shiver at the thought."
Fittingly, on the same weekend Shinseki was appointed, Krugman was in Stockholm picking up his Nobel Prize. Here he is from 2005:
The U.S. economy is currently suffering from twin imbalances. On one side, domestic spending is swollen by the housing bubble, which has led both to a huge surge in construction and to high consumer spending, as people extract equity from their homes. On the other side, we have a huge trade deficit, which we cover by selling bonds to foreigners. As I like to say, these days Americans make a living by selling each other houses, paid for with money borrowed from China. One way or another, the economy will eventually eliminate both imbalances.
By making a deliberate effort to reward those who got it right -- on Iraq, on the economy, on global warming, on health care -- Obama will not only send a message that the days of Bush Darwinism are over, he will also puncture the White House's favorite defense, especially on Iraq, that "everybody got it wrong."
Recognizing and rewarding Those Who Got It Right also makes it far more likely that the next Eric Shinseki will be willing to step forward and speak up. Obama's appointment of Shinseki is a solid first step.
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