Although he expressed the point with characteristic maladroitness, Joe Biden was not necessarily wrong when he told a crowd in the waning weeks of the Presidential campaign that as a new President, Barack Obama would be tested by a foreign policy crisis early in his first term. Biden later explained that he wasn't talking about Obama per se, but about what happens to all new Presidents. Indeed, many observers have noted that transitions (including the end of the lame duck's term and the beginning of the new President's term) are dangerous times precisely because the new team is not yet fully in place. President-elect Obama himself made the point yesterday in introducing his national security team.
Thus it is at least a little odd that, amidst the crisis in Mumbai, so many government officials would tender their resignations. If transitions are dangerous times, one would think it dangerous to insist on transitions in the immediate aftermath of a terrorist attack, especially given the possibility of escalating tensions between India and Pakistan.
Don't get me wrong. It's refreshing to see government officials taking personal responsibility. Here in the U.S., by contrast, the people who botched important national security missions received Presidential Medals of Freedom. Rudy Giuliani, whose main accomplishment was to project an air of competence and command in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, thought that his reward for lack of demonstrated incompetence at the time should have been the extension of his expiring term in office. In recent memory, only Michael "Heckuvajob" Brown had the good taste to fall on his sword.
Stepping back, it's not entirely clear what the best custom should be, or even whether this is a matter of policy rather than simply culture. Surely incompetents should resign when exposed as such, but then incompetents never should have been chosen for their jobs in the first place.
Sometimes a highly competent government official will resign after a disaster in his or her jurisdiction as a means of protecting the Administration as a whole. That may be an act of personal loyalty to the Administration's top leaders, but it is hardly in the public interest. Indeed, to the extent that such a resignation creates the false impression that the problem has been solved, it does the public a disservice.
In other circumstances, a disaster may reveal that someone who appeared competent (even to himself) in fact was not. (Henry Paulson, anyone?) When that happens, resignation may be an appropriate response.
Finally, there may be circumstances when a resignation occurs purely for well-understood symbolic reasons. The public realizes that the resigner was not personally at fault, or at least not any more so than many others, but there has been so much private suffering that the people need someone in high office to share their pain. I suspect this will be most likely to occur when--as now appears to be the case in Mumbai--the direct perpetrators are not available for punishment.
Posted by Mike Dorf