WASHINGTON—Long before he became president, Harry Truman commanded an Army National Guard artillery company in combat in World War I, and he knew something that all military commanders know: He was responsible for everything that the people under his command did, the good and the bad.
The man from Missouri placed a wooden sign on his desk in the White House that said it all: "The Buck Stops Here."
As a young reporter based in Kansas City in 1961 I occasionally visited Mr. Truman at his library in nearby Independence. More often than not, I would find him in the auditorium, sitting on the lip of the stage with his feet dangling, talking to a few hundred eighth-grade students. He always talked to the youngsters about the president's responsibilities under the Constitution, never about the power of the office. It was clear that he had read and re-read the Constitution many times, and that he believed in it.
That's why I have puzzled these last few years over the refusal of President Bush and his key people to accept responsibility for anything but success. Errors and failures—even grotesque and costly mistakes—are orphans in this administration. They have no fathers. Responsibility is invariably pushed down to the lowest possible level.
That's why it was so surprising to hear the president take personal responsibility for any failure of the federal agencies to respond quickly to the incredible human tragedy wrought by Hurricane Kristina, however ill at ease and unpracticed he sounded as he did so.
More than a few of us think that it's now time for President Bush to exercise his new-found talent and take responsibility for the mistakes that have been made in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Foremost among them:
_Diverting 90 percent of the nation's military resources away from the very real mission of wiping out a very real enemy, al-Qaeda and Osama bin Laden, and rebuilding Afghanistan, and instead diverting it to an untimely and unnecessary invasion of Iraq.
_Seizing on the flimsiest of evidence, pretence really, to justify invading Iraq and toppling Saddam Hussein, who didn't have a nuclear weapons lab about to produce bombs or any chemical or biological weapons capabilities left.
_Failing to plan for the possibility of a long-term occupation and counter-insurgency war after Baghdad fell.
_Failing to put a large enough U.S. force into Iraq to secure the infiltration routes over which a steady flow of foreign jihadist killers pass, or to secure or destroy the hundreds of ammunition dumps that contained more than a million tons of bombs, bullets, artillery shells that those killers are now using to blow up our soldiers.
Just as FEMA director Michael Brown was thrown overboard in the wake of the presidential mea culpa on Katrina, so, too, should the Pentagon boss who has overseen those wars and stubbornly refuses to see anything but victory parades ahead—Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld.
Former Marine Capt. Nathaniel Fick, a veteran of both Afghanistan and Iraq and the author of "One Bullet Away: The Making of a Marine Officer," wrote this week that by accepting responsibility for what has happened, or not happened, in Iraq the president would help launch "a top-down rethinking of our military and political strategies."
Just by saying "I am responsible," the president could set both an example and a new standard of personal accountability for the entire chain of command, Fick said. That in turn could garner enough bipartisan support to break the ideological logjam that's limited changes in our strategy and tactics in Iraq to mere policy tweaks instead of a complete reassessment.
Doing this, and sacking Rumsfeld for cause, might embolden senior military leaders who've been silenced by the secretary of defense's vendettas against other generals who spoke truthfully. We might once again hear their best advice on how the counter-insurgency and counter-terrorism wars ought to be prosecuted.
This week at Fort Hood, Texas, the Army will try again to court-martial Pfc. Lynndie England, 22, the last of nine lower ranking National Guard soldiers brought up on criminal charges in the Abu Ghraib prisoner abuse case. Six of the others pleaded guilty and two were convicted. One, a staff sergeant, was sentenced to 10 years in prison in the harshest punishment handed down.
This is one more example of the official determination to push responsibility for mistakes down to the lowest possible level.
Seventeen investigations of Abu Ghraib have all reported that no one in high command and certainly no one among the civilians who populate the E-Ring offices of the Pentagon bears any responsibility—much less culpability.
If you believe that, don't go buying any bridges in Brooklyn anytime soon.
A Bush declaration that he's taking responsibility is the only way we're ever going to break into the clear, face the facts, and begin a badly needed course correction in those wars and the war on terrorism.
ABOUT THE WRITER
Joseph L. Galloway is the senior military correspondent for Knight Ridder Newspapers and co-author of the national best-seller "We Were Soldiers Once ... and Young