We are now several months into the explosion of the coronavirus. Deaths are mounting around the globe, and every day another piece of American society shuts down. And, still, testing kits are few and far between and hard answers on when they will be available are difficult to come by.
How we got here is now clear. Many weeks ago, the Center for Disease Control (CDC), that organization we are always told exists specifically to keep us safe from pandemics, faced the reality that we were dangerously short of coronavirus test kits. There were in existence, of course, test kits used by the World Health Organization for this purpose, but CDC decided not to use these.
Instead, CDC opted, as the number of cases of the virus increased exponentially every day, to develop an entirely new test. Then, just to make things worse it forbid labs around the country from developing and deploying their own tests and mandated that all tests be sent to a single location in Atlanta for processing.
We are now well behind the curve, trying desperately to catch up. The President has spurred commercial companies to get involved, red tape has been cut and we are finally moving with dispatch. Unfortunately, for us the virus is moving faster.
All across this country are millions of men and women who have spent their lives in the military, intelligence or law enforcement and who are intimately familiar with the phenomenon we have just witnessed. It brings to mind a long string of expressions: “A good plan today is always better than a perfect one tomorrow,” “We don’t have time for good idea fairies,” “The perfect is the enemy of the good enough.”
Or as Churchill would have said, “Action this day.”
In the real world, where seconds count and bad decisions cost lives, we do not have time to gold plate ideas or seek perfect solutions. Time costs money and lives. Windows of opportunity open. They also close.
We make quick assessments of the situation and identify realistic options that we can employ now. Then we make hard calls, issue orders and get to work. As a Marine Raider friend of mine says, “the shortest distance between two points is continuous movement.”
None of this applies to the vast upper reaches of the federal government, filled as it is with men and women who exist in an alternate dimension. Here time is never of the essence. Decisions never have meaningful real-world consequences. No one ever really has to answer for anything.
We are told continuously by what I will refer to as “elitists” that we average Americans should entrust our care to those “experts” who know better than we how to manage our lives, raise our children, run our businesses and structure our families. We have just seen the “experts” in action. I am not impressed.
The predictable will now happen. In response to criticism of its actions, the CDC and the usual apologists for Washington’s bureaucratic mandarins will explain that all this was purely a matter of resources. If only CDC had a bigger budget. If only the CDC had more people. If only the bureaucracy that just failed the nation at one of the most critical junctures in its history was even more bloated and more bureaucratic then everything would have been ok.
This is the road we traveled after 9/11. This is the logic that led us to respond to terrorist attacks on the homeland by building vast new agencies, fielding legions of flat-screen computer monitor jockeys and trying to kill Al Qaida and ISIS with paperwork and wiring diagrams. This is the logic that led us to attempt to defeat the Taliban in Afghanistan with endless “reconstruction” projects and a focus on “nation-building.”
We don’t need a bigger bureaucracy. We don’t need to waste more money. We need a government, which does its job and is held accountable for its failures. We need to transform a culture in which everything seems abstract into one in which the only thing that matters is results.
Years ago, in the mountains of Northern Iraq, a junior officer assigned to my CIA base came to talk to me about difficulties he was having in meeting the timeline I had given him for the deployment of teams of Kurdish assets across the Green Line separating Kurdish controlled territory from that still held by Saddam Hussein. A few moments into his tale of woe, I cut him off.
I explained to the officer in question that I did not care. I assured him that I had known the job was difficult when I gave it to him. I reminded him that we got paid to do what others considered impossible. I suggested he stop wasting time and that he get back to work.
He did. He also succeeded brilliantly.
I did not say what I said to the young officer in question because of some special genius on my part. I said it because that was how I had been brought up and trained to think and to act. I said it because only one thing mattered and that was “mission accomplishment.” It was the standard to which I was held and to which I would hold my people.
We desperately need to get back to this point in the U.S. Government as a whole, and the first step in doing so is to ensure accountability for those who fail. Moving on from this point, acting like the failure at the CDC is no big deal and hoping it will do better in the future is not an option. If the President is really serious about draining the swamp and changing the culture in the federal government he needs to start right now.
Fire the head of the CDC. Investigate what just happened. Fire everyone else who had a hand in this debacle. Send the signal. Business “as usual” is over.