This story is getting

March 3, 2003 12:23 a.m.

This story is getting a lot of attention, as well it should.

The recently-installed senior director for Near East and North African affairs on the National Security Council, Elliott Abrams, has just canned three government Middle East experts who staffed that desk at the NSC. Presumably, they are to be replaced by others who will more faithfully toe and execute the party line.

It’s an important story. But actually an old story. The same thing has been happening throughout the national security bureaucracy for two years, particularly at the Pentagon. It’s not a secret. Any other reporter who covers foreign or military affairs knows this.

There’s a dynamic — and hopefully fruitful — tension which exists between political appointees and civil servants in these cases. The civil servants have to execute the policy decisions of their appointive superiors — at least they’re supposed to. But the civil servants are also supposed to give candid advice and raise the obvious questions.

They’re supposed to point out why the Assistant Secretary for such-and-such’s idea to do this-that-or-the-other is going to be a complete disaster. If they’re smart, the appointees listen, even if they decide to do it anyway.

It’s an important ballast in the process of policy formation, even if can be annoying for the politicals. But getting that kind of feedback can be uncomfortable and troublesome. And there’s always the temptation to shoot the messenger.

I’ve never discussed this in any of the articles I’ve written on national security or defense issues because in any given article discussing it can mean fingering people who are already trying to keep their heads down and avoid retribution.

But on the key issues that matter to this administration, particularly the Middle East, there’s been an exodus of government experts out of the executive branch into exile on the Hill, at National Defense University, and various other outta-the-way parts of the national security bureaucracy. A lot of these folks got canned like those Abrams dropped at the NSC. Others just got the message when they were instructed not to pen any reports or tender any advice which conflicted with the administration’s favored policies. Everyone who leaves makes one more open seat for a think-tank hack who will tell the politicals what they want to hear.

Let’s be clear: this tension always exists. Probably a bit more after a two-term presidency when the incoming crew believes the career bureaucracy has been shaped for a decade by the opposite party. But in this administration it’s gone to unprecedented levels.

Career civil servants aren’t the be-all and end-all. But without them, the policy-making process can become an echo-chamber of over-confident ideologues, confirming each others’ preconceived notions, and blundering into ridiculousness and disaster.

Sound familiar?

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