Home Uncategorized Afterthoughts: A Requiem for Competence

Afterthoughts: A Requiem for Competence

Photo by Gage Skidmore, Creative Commons Licensing.

The left. The right. Republicans, Democrats. I’d like to, for a moment, put that aside. I’d like to talk about politics in a way that ignores ideology.

Donald Trump ran on a platform of removing incompetence from government. Hundreds of times during the campaign he referred to the Obama administration not just as liberal (which is fair), but as incompetent. He alone, he said, knew how to fix it. He would hire the best people, he would drain the swamp, he would run the country like a business.

It should be pointed out that none of these statements are about the left vs. the right.

He’s talking about something else, a way we can measure government quality that has nothing to do with ideology. Voters responded to that message. There is even a part of me that responded to that message.

13 days in, we now have more than rhetoric, we have actions.

Our new President has not been timid in his approach, he has taken the reigns of power and is quickly rewriting the way the federal government works. There is little doubt, given his Supreme Court nominee, his early executive actions on immigration, and Obamacare that he intends to fulfill his ideological promises. His base, generally, is pleased with these actions. Turns out he really is a conservative where it counts.

But how is he doing on the competence scale? Let’s take a look at two instances: the Immigration Ban and the Navy Seal raid.

Typically, before a President issues an executive order that will have an immediate effect on policy, he will get comments from those in charge of implementing those policies. This has been standard practice for decades.

But comments on Trump’s order on travel bans was not vetted. They didn’t ask policy experts in Homeland Security. They didn’t ask legal experts in the Justice Department. They didn’t ask for opinions from the Customs and Border Protection experts who would be implementing the plan. The National Security Council, who is supposed to conduct a standard agency review, was bypassed.

How did it work out? With no prior warning and preparation for the travel ban, confusion reigned. Green card holders were detained and handcuffed. Families were separated. People who had lived in the U.S. for decades could no longer get home. Allies who had provided translation and intelligence during wartime (and given promises of residency) suddenly found themselves being interrogated. International students could not get to class, medical procedures were canceled, and an award-nominated filmmaker could not attend the ceremony.

Among the detainees, social media was searched, lawyers were denied. Constitutional norms were ignored. Outside the airports, protests broke out.

The courts responded, and declared part of the Executive Order invalid. But even that caused confusion. And in a few cases, border agents defied the court – an interesting footnote which makes one fear that our checks and balances might be breakable. The acting Attorney General refused to defend the order, and was fired. Finally, the administration modified the order to exclude green card holders.

The order was poorly planned and badly executed. Standards were ignored. “Why didn’t they include us in the process?” asked the experts. “We could have warned them, helped them implement it properly.”

Also over the weekend, President Trump approved a Navy Seal Team Six raid on an Al Qaeda compound in Yemen. We learned quickly that the attack went very badly. Civilians, including 15 women and children, were killed, as well as one of the Seals, Chief Petty Officer William Owens. A $75 million MV-22 Osprey was destroyed. It was a catastrophic failure, by nearly any measure.

Could this have been avoided? Three military officials, speaking to Reuters anonymously, insisted that Trump approved the mission “without sufficient intelligence, ground support, or adequate backup preparations.” They faced a fortified Al Qaeda base defended by “landmines, snipers, and a larger-than-expected contingent of heavily armed Islamist extremists.” The Qaeda fighters were tipped off before our soldiers arrived.

Trump called the mission a “success.” The parallels of this strike to the dysfunction of Benghazi — which was great campaign fodder for his “incompetence” message. The comparison is palpable.

These two events — the travel ban and the Al Qaeda strike — share a common thread. Both actions were executed by a rookie administration, who had access to experts and intelligence but chose not to use them. An administration that shot from the hip, went with their gut, and had it blow up in their faces.

We have heard quite a bit in the last few weeks from Trump secretary appointees who admit they do not know the job, but they would rely on others below them to help them learn. But so far, in two clear examples, that has not happened. Our federal government employs some of the world’s greatest foreign policy, military, economic, and scientific minds. But our administration knows better.

I would like to imagine that such a week would leave Trump humbled, but I sincerely doubt that is in his character.

Most days, I’m happy to jump into the stream of partisan bickering. But not today.

Today, I’m holding a Requiem for Competence.


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