Friday, December 17, 2004

On meritocracy

This week, President Bush awarded three Presidential Medals of Freedom--the highest award that a United States civilian citizen can be awarded--to L Paul Bremer, Jr, the former administrator in Iraq, retired General Tommy Franks and former CIA-director George Tenet. It has always been a central plank in the philosophy of the GOP that people ought to be rewarded for their efforts and merits--indeed that the ideal society is a meritocracy. This has been the traditional Republican argument against Affirmative Action, for example.

But, then, as a casual observer, I have to ask myself what these three men were rewarded for. American citizens have been assailed on all sides with reports of just how bad the intelligence situation has been for years. So Tenet's award must not be for the job well done at the CIA, unless it's just for having had the job. But a Medal of Freedom is a far cry from a pocket watch.

The early days of the Iraqi invasion seem to have been a series of missteps, misestimations and outright mistakes. For this, Franks is being rewarded? Of course, he did campaign for Bush's reelection, but a Medal of Freedom isn't supposed to be a political gong--our minimal system of awards is not supposed to mirror the British Honours system.

Of the three, only Bremer seems to have done an admirable job. Whatever one's view of the invasion and following occupation, once in power, Bremer brought a modicum of order to a country over which he did not have total control using a military he was not in command of. He probably made the most of a bad situation.

Awards like these, not unlike former Administration officials retiring from public life to lucrative careers in industries they used to regulate (or de-regulate) make one wonder whether there are any members of the Grand Old Party who actually still believe that one should be rewarded for effort, or whether this is just a slogan to be thrown out when public welfare is cast aside in favor of the market.

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