Sometimes a little incident can tell you a lot.
In April, the State Department released its annual "Patterns of Global Terrorism" report, based on data from the CIA, the FBI and other agencies, which claimed that terrorist attacks in 2003 had declined to the lowest level since 1969. Senior Bush administration officials touted this as evidence that we're winning the war on terror.
However, when social scientists Alan Krueger and David Laitin looked at the data, they found all sorts of anomalies. In a Washington Post Op-Ed article, they pointed out that the report did not count some significant terrorist acts, such as the November bombings in Turkey that killed 61 people. Even by State's own calculations, the number of "significant" terrorist attacks rose between 2002 and 2003.
Last week, the State Department sheepishly admitted that its report was in error. Rather than showing that terrorism declined last year, the corrected report will show that it increased.
This risible mishap will provide further fodder for those on the left who believe that the administration lies routinely. I don't think that's the case. A report like this would not fool an intelligent 10-year-old. If the State Department were really bent on deception, it would not have appended a handy index of "significant" terrorist events, allowing anyone to check its calculations and find them in error.
This is evidence not of duplicity but of incompetence. Again.
When President Bush's foreign policy players came into office, the widespread assumption was that they would be cautious but competent. Sort of like the last Bush administration. Instead they've been great at enunciating bold policies -- such as preempting terrorism -- and terrible at executing them.
Look at the hash the administration made of diplomacy before the invasion of Iraq. It couldn't even bring the Turks on board. Nothing better exposed its ham-handedness than the speech Vice President Dick Cheney made in August 2002 declaring there was no need to send U.N. weapons inspectors back to Iraq. When just a few weeks later Bush asked for the inspectors to be dispatched, his sincerity was widely questioned.
Things haven't improved much during the occupation of Iraq. The heavy-handed U.S. proconsul, L. Paul Bremer III, managed to alienate pretty much every Iraqi politician. Contributing to the disarray has been the flip-flopping on such basic questions as the role of the U.N. and of Ahmad Chalabi, a situation that reflects deep divisions within the administration.
Meanwhile, the administration has failed to develop a coherent approach to the nuclear crises looming in Iran and North Korea. Administration hard-liners have argued for regime change. Soft-liners have suggested striking deals with Pyongyang and Tehran. Rather than following either policy, the president has dithered as atomic production lines have geared up.
What's behind these failures? Every administration-watcher I've talked to, Republican or Democrat, points to a dysfunctional interagency process. The National Security Council is supposed to coordinate departments and produce a coherent policy. It hasn't done its job. The State and Defense departments are constantly at odds, and neither NSC chief Condoleezza Rice nor her deputy, Stephen Hadley, has knocked heads together to produce a unified approach. In the fruitless search for internal consensus, they usually wind up deferring difficult decisions.
When goof-ups occur, no one is held responsible. The only senior national security official to leave the administration, CIA Director George J. Tenet, is retiring apparently because of pressure from outside investigators, not from the president. In fairness to Rice and Hadley, they have a difficult job in dealing with such outsize personalities as Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld and Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, to say nothing of their strong-willed deputies, Paul D. Wolfowitz and Richard L. Armitage. Ultimately it's up to Bush to hold his aides accountable and force them to work together. Because he has often failed to do so, the blunders keep on coming.
Bush can take some comfort from the fact that his hero, Ronald Reagan, presided over similar bureaucratic chaos and it didn't prevent him from achieving his major objectives -- reviving the economy and defeating communism. But Bush is taking his Reagan redux approach a bit too far if he insists on emulating the Gipper's weaknesses as well as his strengths.
Max Boot, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, writes a weekly column for the Los Angeles Times.