Rewarding incompetence

At the beginning of the Seven Years’ War, the English admiral John Byng was sent to relieve Fort St. Philip on the island of Minorca. Commanding an undermanned fleet, Byng was unable to repulse the French warships besieging the island, and the fort was forced to surrender.

When he returned to England, Byng was court-martialed, and convicted for having failed "to do his utmost" to secure victory. He was executed by firing squad on the deck of the HMS Monarch, in Portsmouth Harbor. This incident inspired the French writer Voltaire’s famously sardonic comment that in England "it is considered a good thing to kill an admiral from time to time, pour encourager les autres" (to encourage the others).

Voltaire’s epigram crossed my mind when I heard neoconservative military strategist Frederick Kagan holding forth on National Public Radio, regarding his plan to send a "surge" of new combat troops to Iraq. The word in Washington is that Kagan’s plan is much to President Bush’s liking, and that the president is inclined to put it into action next month.

Voltaire noted that in 18th century England mistakes made in the heat of battle could result in the most savage punishment. In America today, we are beset by the opposite problem: incompetence so grotesque that it is as a practical matter difficult to distinguish from treason and in fact only increases the power and prestige of those who are guilty of it. And while I wouldn’t go so far as to recommend the occasional execution of a neo-conservative strategist, it’s worth noting that the chief architects of the Iraq war have suffered no punishment whatsoever for plunging the nation into the biggest foreign policy disaster in our history.

Indeed, far from being subjected to any adverse consequences for sending America on a military adventure that has already cost hundreds of thousands of lives and hundreds of billions of dollars, while accomplishing the remarkable feat of leaving the Iraqi people even worse off than they were under Saddam Hussein, people like Kagan still control our Iraq strategy.

This is an odd state of affairs. It could be compared to empowering the former management of Enron to balance the federal budget, or hiring O.J. Simpson as a marriage counselor. Yet when it comes to Iraq, nothing succeeds like failure. (The honors showered on the likes of Paul Bremer, Paul Wolfowitz, and Donald Rumsfeld would have been considered completely unbelievable if these people had been characters in a satirical novel).

Last month, Republicans suffered a crushing defeat in the midterm elections, largely because of public disgust with the war. Last week, polls revealed that more than seven of 10 Americans disapprove of President Bush’s current war strategy, and that only 12 percent of the nation wants to toss more troops into the maw of this ever-expanding fiasco.

To say that something that’s supported by 12 percent of the public is a fringe position is an understatement (you could probably get percent of the public to favor an invasion of Jupiter).

None of this seems to make any difference. It doesn’t even make any difference that many of the president’s own generals are against sending more American troops to Iraq, and would openly oppose any such move if doing so wasn’t the equivalent of career suicide.

Of all the tragic aspects of this national disaster, this is worst: The people who have been catastrophically wrong about everything are still in charge. And a year from now, when things are even worse in Iraq, we can be sure the neoconservatives will still be demanding that yet more American soldiers die so that Kagan and his ilk can continue to live out their increasingly destructive geopolitical fantasies.

A few of these people need to begin to pay some price for the damage they’re doing — if only "to encourage the others" to stop.

(Paul Campos is a law professor at the University of Colorado and can be reached at Paul.Campos(at)