Skip to comments.Colin in the Cross-Fire
Posted on 04/28/2004 4:59:36 AM PDT by OESY
Our secretary of state is catching flak from both flanks these days. Told-you-so doves and circle-the-wagons hawks are lambasting Colin Powell for his Iraq positions, as described in Bob Woodward's latest book.
The doves say: You knew that overthrowing Saddam would be too costly, yet you let yourself be used by those febrile neocons. Why didn't you storm into the Oval Office, tell the president that the Cheney-Rummy gang was crazy, and if he didn't listen resign in protest? Where are your principles?
Hawks say: You knew Saddam was a growing threat and Iraq supported terrorists. You got your way in going to the U.N. for approval. But now, in the midst of the unexpected postwar bloodletting, you're telling Woodward that nobody asked your advice, thereby undermining the president when he needs you most. Where are your principles?
I was never a big Powell fan. My pesky criticism of his failure to finish off Saddam in the first gulf war, repeated during the general's presidential boomlet, led Powell to tell The New Yorker that "Safire is getting arrogant in his old age." (True enough, and that was a decade ago, when I was a mere sexagenarian.)
But a public figure infuriating both hard right and far left can't be all bad. And beyond that, a voice of tactical caution in a National Security Council of bold strategists is a necessary thing. George Bush knew what he was getting when he chose his secretary of state.
Here's what convinces me of that. I was a guest at what was probably the last of the intimate dinner parties given by The Washington Post's Katharine Graham. It was in the summer of 2001, honoring Kay's pal George Shultz.
The new Bush appointees present were Condi Rice, Don Rumsfeld and Colin Powell. The former Post reporter Don Oberdorfer and I were there to ask questions, and we merrily popped away on China, Russia, Europe and the Middle East.
The Graham rules: one conversation at the one round table. And it was a "social occasion," which meant hair down, bark off and no quoting anybody. Were I, even now, to recount what was said that night, a thunderbolt from Kay on high would incinerate my computer. But the general impression I took away, and which informed subsequent columns on suitably profound background, was this:
First, Colin and Rummy came at just about every defense and foreign issue with a different mind-set. This augured permanent policy tussling "creative tension" at the top of the new leadership. Second, these two old pros genuinely enjoyed sparring intellectually with each other. That portended a personal civility to ameliorate the usual State-Defense institutional hostility. Third, the taciturn Condi Rice was not yet in their power league or did not trust the social-occasion rules.
That's the way policy formation in Bush's first term is playing out. Though attributing nothing to anybody, I can attest that in private conversations, Rummy and Colin have retained that personal mutual respect. This is true even as their minions snarl at one another, and as Powell's neckless deputy races after the vice president with a thermometer so as to report to Woodward about Dick Cheney's "war fever."
Powell gets his dissents heard, and wins a few. He persuaded Bush to go to the U.N. for its resolution warning Saddam of "serious consequences," which was wise. Though he doesn't zip his lip as well as a team player should when he loses, Powell loyally stays aboard to argue again another day. That moderately principled stand may get him derided by doves as a "good soldier," but it makes him a good secretary of state.
Presidents handle conflicting internal advice differently. Lincoln sought public balance, treating State's Seward and Treasury's Chase as "a pumpkin in each end of my bag." L.B.J. grimly tolerated George Ball. Nixon used Shultz to synthesize the ideas of Arthur Burns and Pat Moynihan. Carter followed Zbig Brzezinski and Cy Vance into policy paralysis.
Bush comes out well as a leader in Woodward's book because he surrounds himself with strong advisers, gives them a fair hearing, then makes up his mind and takes action. As a result, some of the best of them stick around, gaining humility with age.
I don't think the term they're using is quite as nice as "good soldier." I believe it would probably have something to do with a nice Christian gentleman whose habitation was a small house in Kentucky.
That's him. However, Uncle Tom was no "Uncle Tom," remaining, in Christlike fashion, defiant in his passivity, even to the point of death.
FYI ping. Oldie, but worth reading.