Memo To: Website Fans, Browsers, Clients
From: Jude Wanniski
Re: Bulls-Eye for Bill Keller of the NYT
In his Saturday column in the Times, Bill Keller spoke for all those at home and abroad to put their faith in Secretary of State Colin Powell -- believing he would persuade the President at the last minute to be satisfied with the disarmament of Iraq, via the United Nations. Keller argues that Powell should now resign his post, having failed in his diplomatic mission, to preserve what credibility he has. I disagree with Keller only with his criticism of the role played by France, as France only acted as it did when it realized Colin Powell had given up on disarmament and threw in with the hawks on regime change. The hawks, by the way, are now criticizing Powell for having talked the President into going to the UN, where he suffered a defeat by getting only four votes of 15 for a new resolution endorsing war even while diplomacy was clearly succeeding.
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Why Colin Powell Should Go
March 22, 2003
By Bill Keller
The famous hardheaded definition of war is "the continuation of politics by other means." In the real world, though, war is the failure of politics. This war -- undertaken at such cost to America's own interests -- is specifically a failure of Colin Powell's politics.
Even if you believe that this war is justified, the route to it has been an ugly display of American opportunism and bullying, dissembling and dissonance. The administration has neglected other lethal crises around the world, alienated the allies we need for almost everything else on our agenda and abandoned friends working for the kind of values we profess to be exporting.
When the last insincere whimper of diplomacy failed this week, I happened to be in Pakistan, where those who speak up for the values we espouse live with death threats from Islamic zealots. As America moved on Iraq, it was heartbreaking to hear the despair of these beleaguered liberals. They are convinced that their cause -- our cause -- will now be suffocated by anti-Americanism, not because we are going to war but because of the way we are going to war.
Let's hope they are wrong, and let's hope the war is a quick success, and let's hope President Bush can regain the good will that accrued to America after September 11. But on the battleground of ideas -- on the issue of how America uses its power -- Mr. Powell seems to me to have been defeated already. When the war is over, when his departure will not undermine the president during a high crisis, he should concede that defeat, and go.
I can't count the number of times in the past two years I've heard -- occasionally from my own lips -- the observation that the Bush Administration would be a much scarier outfit without Colin Powell. Allied diplomats, international businessmen and the American foreign policy mainstream have regarded him as the lone grown-up in an administration with a teenager's twitchy metabolism and self-centered view of the world. He was the one who acknowledged that other countries had legitimate interests, and that in the application of America's unmatched power there was a case for generosity because what goes around comes around. His pragmatic caution offset a moralism that sometimes verged on recklessness. If others, including the president, seemed given to hype and swagger, Mr. Powell's word seemed bankable -- at least until the White House began misspending his credibility in its rush to the war that couldn't wait.
Even if you did not entirely share his soldier's wariness about military intervention -- if, for example, you felt that he bore some of the responsibility for our foot-dragging during the horrors of Bosnia -- you slept better knowing he was there to assess the costs and give the alternatives their due. He was the voice of moderation among the china-smashers. (Lowercase c. At least, so far.)
For a time he managed to keep a lid on the new American exuberance. Our relations with Russia and China weathered the early roughhousing over missile defense and other disputes, in large part because Mr. Powell was such a calming figure. Old-fashioned diplomacy helped line up the world's support for our war in Afghanistan and the broader war on terror. Thanks to Mr. Powell we (belatedly) framed our grievance against Iraq as a United Nations grievance; that 15 to nothing vote on Resolution 1441 was probably the high-water mark of his diplomacy. Mr. Powell also, I am told, helped beat back the idea of fighting the war in Iraq on the cheap -- with fewer troops, more high-tech dazzle, a little experiment with American lives. So he has won some big ones.
But that is exactly the problem. His formidable skills have been too much engaged in a kind of guerrilla war for the soul of the president, and it has shown. Critics in the administration and colleagues on this page have unfavorably compared his performance in the buildup to war with James Baker's whirlwind of global coalition-building before the gulf war in 1991. But Mr. Baker was operating as his president's right arm; Mr. Powell was busy protecting his right flank.
At least if the president had a secretary of state he fully trusted, the State Department might be allowed to attend to the other grave problems it has given short shrift: the flammable dispute between nuclear India and nuclear Pakistan, the dangerously slow rebuilding of Afghanistan, the multiple woes of South America and the toxic problem of North Korea's nuclear program. But Mr. Powell and his department seem to operate always under a cloud of suspicion. Even Mr. Powell's friend and deputy, Richard Armitage, a man with impeccable Reaganite credentials, is sometimes treated as if he had morphed into Ramsey Clark. (He had the audacity to say we would talk directly to North Korea.) Despite Mr. Powell's efforts, the trove of expertise that resides in his department has been marginalized. The State Department is apparently, as Donald Rumsfeld might say, "old America."
Let us pray the combat is better planned and executed than the diplomacy of the past few weeks, which managed to make the U.S. seem simultaneously inflated and very small. The first U.N. resolution was coyly general in its wording, but the second -- in all its misbegotten versions -- was simply fraudulent, designed to cover up its real meaning, which was not disarmament but regime change. As Mr. Powell was deployed time and again to dispense credulity-straining information about our intelligence, about our purpose, I kept thinking of the wised-up passages in his autobiography, when he deplored the way Vietnam had eroded America's national conviction with "euphemism, lies and self-deception." Then there was that silly tête-à-tête-à-tête in the Azores -- an hour-long, pointless photo op that Mr. Powell, with a straight face, insisted on calling "the Atlantic summit," as if it were Yalta.
Perhaps the single saddest moment of the whole cynical prelude to war was Mr. Bush's abrupt promise to take on the issue of Israel and Palestine, a paramount and long-awaited commitment that was demeaned by the crassness of timing. (Just in case anyone believed he was serious, the word quickly went out from the White House that it was all intended to buy Tony Blair some peace at home.)
And much as I respect Estonia and El Salvador, there is something ridiculous about the list of our "partners" -- a coalition of the anonymous, the dependent, the halfhearted and the uninvolved, whose lukewarm support supposedly confers some moral authority. This is like -- oh, I don't know, wresting a dubious election victory in Florida and claiming a mandate. It lacks a certain verisimilitude.
Mr. Powell is not, of course, entirely to blame for the mess of the past few months. If you're apportioning fault, you can cast plenty at the French for demonstrating to the president that Mr. Powell's patient diplomacy was pointless. We can blame Mr. Rumsfeld, the anti-diplomat, who dispensed insults to uppity allies as if they were corporate subordinates. (Getting the president a more compatible secretary of state might allow Mr. Rumsfeld to get out of the business of undermining foreign policy and back to the business of reforming the military.) We can blame the White House national security staff, which is supposed to choreograph something resembling a coherent strategy. We can, of course, blame the man at the desk where the buck stops.
The most important reason the secretary of state should go is that the president has chosen a course that repudiates much of what Mr. Powell has stood for -- notably his deep suspicion of arrogant idealism. I don't mean that Mr. Bush is bent on a series of preemptive wars -- surely the president would like to take the country into the election year at peace -- but this is about how we throw our weight around in peacetime, too.
Critics of the Bush administration talk about the breach in the Atlantic alliance and the division at the United Nations as "collateral damage," as if, in the rush to get Iraq, the administration has blundered. That assumes it was an accident. It seems more plausible that this was not an attempt to put spine in the United Nations and NATO, but to discredit them. The global engineers talk with such contempt of these organizations; it is difficult to believe they want to salvage them as anything but appendages of American power.
The U.N. is indeed exasperating, and some of the international treaties concocted during the cold war are indeed outdated. Surely the president is right to conclude that if we see a genuine danger to our country, we are not obliged to wait for the blessing of the Security Council to act. And even granting the paradox that we made Saddam a bigger and more imminent danger by broadcasting our determination to remove him, by the end we were trapped in the reality that, left alone, he was a menace to us. Godspeed to the Third Infantry, and good riddance to Saddam.
If you are going to demolish the old order, though, you should have something in mind to replace it -- and so far, the replacement seems to be an endless series of pickup games with America as owner of the football and, thus, eternal quarterback.
Whatever you think of this idea (I think it is unsustainable), it demands a high order of diplomatic dexterity to pull it off. Not much of that finesse has been in evidence as our leaders have cast about desperately for followers, shifting from one rationale to another, bribing and browbeating, citing questionable intelligence and dubious legalisms.
When I put the question of resigning to Mr. Powell yesterday, he was, characteristically, showing no signs of surrender. He has no intention of leaving, he said. He has the president's full confidence. He has been written off before. And Iraq is just Iraq -- not the first in a series of military adventures.
"I think it's a bit of an overstatement to say that now this one's pocketed, on to the next place," Mr. Powell said. The larger question of America's role in the world, he said, "isn't answered yet."
Such a loyal and optimistic man would make some president a great secretary of state. Just not this president.