Thursday, April 15, 2004
So here's my question: who should take the fall for the mess we're in?
I should start by saying that no one will. Bush is not going to fire anybody. He never fires anybody, at least not for incompetence.
Moreover, the overall strategy for the war on terror will not change. Bush is going to continue to oppose subordinating the U.S. war effort to the U.N. He's going to continue to focus on anti-proliferation efforts. He's going to continue to work with unsavory and two-faced regimes like Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. He's going to continue to support Ariel Sharon's hard line against Palestinian terror groups. And he's going to remain engaged in Iraq, trying to build a stable and relatively free society there.
And it's not obvious to me that the overall strategy should change. The notion that states like Pakistan or Iran are irrelevant to the war on terrorism strikes me as obviously stupid; yes, Madrids will happen without state sponsorship, and yes our war in Iraq has clearly increased the likelihood of "independent" attacks on Americans and our allies such as happened in Madrid. But it's not either-or. It's also true that al Qaeda could never have grown to the strength it has without the Taliban, who in turn were the creation of the Pakistani regime. And it's true that our most dangerous opponents in Iraq are backed by Iran, who is also the principal supporter of Hizballah and has provided transit and support for other anti-American terrorist groups, including al Qaeda. And no terrorist is going to get his hands on a nuclear or biological weapon except with state support.
But there is no question that we went into Iraq unprepared for the difficulties we faced, and we are paying for it - on the ground in Iraq and in terms of greater terrorist blowback worldwide. And someone should pay for that.
No one will. Bush is going to present us with a choice in the next election between a guy with basically the right orientation in terms of how to prosecute this war but a severely limited grasp of the complications of the real world and, worse, a basic refusal to admit that he or his team has ever made a mistake, or to learn from same; and, on the other hand, a guy who shows every sign of being an intelligent, sophisticated, informed guy with absolutely no political courage, who has never made a difficult political decision and has spent 19 years in the Senate compiling a record so thin as to be nonexistent. If you think that absolutely no tough decisions need to be made in the next four years, vote Kerry. If you think good values are all you need, and information is irrelevant to making the tough decisions that we will face, then vote Bush. If you think we'll have tough decisions to make, but you'd like them made by an informed and savvy person, then you - we - have a problem.
But it's comforting to fantasize about what could increase my confidence that the Bush Administration is capable at least of learning from their mistakes, even if they don't admit to them. It's not like Bush has never reversed course: he agreed to create the Department of Homeland Security, installed Bremmer to replace the hapless Garner as Viceroy of Iraq, abandoned Ahmad Chalabi when his purported popular support turned out to be nil, etc. But I think if the country is going to have the confidence to stick with him for another four years, we need to know more than that he (or his team) can react to events. We need to know that they can learn, and the best way to prove that would be to fire someone who seems incapable of learning.
So who should he fire?
It would have to be someone very senior. Firing a guy like Wolfowitz or Feith wouldn't cut it. The point is not to purge the Administration of neo-cons, and anyhow these guys don't make the decisions; their bosses do.
There are only 5 players senior enough and important enough to the war that their departure would be noted and weighed as significant. They are: Powell, Rice, Tenet, Rumsfeld, and Cheney. Let's look at each in turn.
Powell: this guy should've been fired long ago. His role in this Administration is either (a) to present and argue for an alternative policy approach to the neo-cons, or (b) to sell Bush's policies, whatever they are, to skeptical Europeans. He's failed by any measure at either job. Powell certainly has argued with guys like Cheney and Wolfowitz, but he hasn't actually won any arguments of substance, and I think the reason is that Powell doesn't actually have an alternative perspective. He's not a sophisticated realist like James Baker or Zbigniew Brzezinski or Henry Kissinger. He just a cautious bureaucrat. He's loyal to Bush, does his best to make his case and, if he loses, is a good soldier. But really providing Bush with a robustly argued alternative set of policies, just words of caution. I'm not surprised Bush rarely decides his way. And I'm not surprised he's utterly failed to sell Bush's policies in European salons. Whether someone else would do a better job is open to question, but it's worth giving someone else a try.
But firing Powell accomplishes nothing in terms of convincing us Bush can learn from mistakes, because Powell isn't the one who made the mistakes. Powell wasn't an Iraq pollyanna, and Powell wasn't the big advocate of basing the case for war almost entirely on WMD (that was Tony Blair, and Bush can't fire him). Firing Powell, and Powell alone, would read like Bush was doing the opposite of what he needs to do: purging his staff of dissenters. That's both the wrong thing to do and the wrong thing to convey. So while Bush should fire Powell, that only increases the need for him to fire someone else as well, someone much more inside the loop.
(Who should replace Powell? Armitage could probably do the job fine. I would have liked Bush to find a place in his Administration for the only Clinton Democrat worth anything on national security, Dick Holbrooke, who's tough as nails and a firm internationalist, but it's too late now, partisanship is too fierce on both sides. Larry Eagleburger, the old Bush I hand, is probably unacceptable to the neo-cons, so that's an argument in his favor. And then there's Paul Bremmer who, if he's able to extricate himself from Iraq, would potentially be quite an interesting choice. But probably the job is Rice's for the asking, and I bet she asks for it. Which brings us to . . .)
Rice: I actually think Rice has done her job reasonably well. Her rise all the way to National Security Advisor was only slightly less precipitous than Bush's rise all the way to the Presidency. But she's got a lot of what it takes to do well at the job. She's highly organized and articulate. She understands her boss's mind. She has credibility with and understanding of a wide range of foreign policy factions (she trained under Scowcroft, remember), and can present their arguments to the President. She has no independent agenda or loyalties (she owes pretty much everything to Bush, after all). So she definitely shouldn't be fired.
Unfortunately, she's about to fall victim to the Peter Principle and be promoted beyond her level of greatest effectiveness. If Bush picked her for Veep for a second term, she'd basically keep the same job she has now, but I don't think she'd bring anything to the ticket, nor would she be any use in negotiating with Congress (something the Veep can sometimes help with). If Bush picked her for Secretary of State, she'd no longer be an advisor but master of a huge bureaucracy, with its own agendas and factions, and would have to represent Bush and his policies to the world. I think she'd be strikingly ineffective at both jobs: at the former, because she's a brittle control freak who will terrify the folks at State into silence or anger them to the point that they undermine her actively, and at the latter because she's viewed - correctly - as such a Bush creation that she won't be able to pretend to play honest broker between the Administration and the rest of the world, something a good Secretary of State can do. (I stress that the Secretary is supposed to pretend to be an honest broker; a truly lousy Secretary actually does behave as an honest broker, and so forgets who he actually works for.)
So: no reason to fire Rice, no reason to move her either, but expect her to move.
Tenet: among the neo-cons, Tenet is probably #1 on the hit list. He's a Clinton holdover, he presided over a CIA that failed to kill bin Laden, failed to anticipate 9-11, etc., etc. To me, this is a lot of inside baseball. I have no idea if Tenet's been a particularly good or bad CIA chief; I do know that the CIA has been pretty impotent for a long time before Tenet came on board. The last CIA chief who really tried to shake the place up was wild man Bill Casey, and look what that got us.
Knowing nothing as I do, I can say with confidence that Bush did the right thing not to fire Tenet right after 9-11. Blaming him specifically for missing 9-11 is silly, and the Agency didn't need a slap in the face right when we needed it to gear up for war in Afghanistan, a war in which the Agency would figure prominently. But enough time has passed since then. If Tenet's not a strong leader ready to rebuild the CIA into the effective instrument it was in the early days of the Cold War, then Bush should find someone else.
But this has nothing to do with the question at hand. Tenet is not an architect of the Iraq war; he's not the architect of anything. Firing him would send no signal at all, about anything.
Rumsfeld: you know, a lot of folks blame Rumsfeld for Iraq. I don't. Rumsfeld set out to achieve something, and by gum he's achieving it. If someone's to blame for letting Rumseld set the agenda, that's the President, not Rummy himself.
Rumsfeld's prime objective is to turn the American Army into the Wehrmacht. He wants Americans to learn to make blitzkrieg, to fight fast and smart and overwhelm the enemy not with massive force but with speed, maneuverability and accuracy. He wanted to take out Iraq with the absolute minimum number of troops for one reason: to prove it could be done. To show America's enemies and America's armed forces how much they could do with much less than they thought they needed. This would enhance America's deterrent and point the way to further transformation of the military into a far more dangerous and useful tool than it has been historically.
And you know what? Rumsfeld won his war. We had enough troops - even without opening another front through Turkey - to take out the regime, in record time, with astonishingly low allied casualties and with much less collateral damage than was assumed would follow our assault. If I were a general in the People's Liberation Army, and I saw what Rumsfeld achieved in Iraq, I would be much more cautious about assuming I could win, or even fight to a draw as in Korea, against the United States.
Of course, Rumsfeld's war plan was utterly insufficient to police Iraq post-war; that much we now know. Did Rumsfeld know that beforehand? Hard to say. He certainly heard it from his generals, but he also heard from guys like Feith and Wolfowitz that the post-war would take care of itself. But whether Rumsfeld drank the Kool-aid or just served it to others is kind of beside the point, because for Rumsfeld the post-war was beside the point. Rumsfeld has never had any interest in holding onto Iraq or making it a democracy or the rest of it. Rumsfeld was the envoy to Saddam in the Reagan years, sent to encourage him to step up the war with Iran, and Saddam was just as much of a brutal, mass-murdering thug in 1983 as he was in 2003. So my guess is Rumsfeld didn't really care whether Wolfowitz was right or not about Ahmad Chalabi or Iraq's democratic potential; what he wanted to do was take out the regime quickly, with the maximally precise application of minimal force. Mission accomplished.
(Rumsfeld also doesn't care if we have bases in Iraq for years to come, something some war advocates have touted as an objective. Why? Because Rumsfeld envisions an integrated American armed forces that relies to a decreasing extent on a significant footprint in-theater. He wants to figure out how to do without bases, not how to produce political conditions for a greater number of bases. Yet another reason why Rumsfeld doesn't care much about the post-war situation in Iraq.)
Now, you all know that I think the post-war situation in Iraq matters an awful lot. We can afford another dictatorship in Iraq, but we cannot afford anarchy or civil war, we cannot afford an Iranian-dominated Iraq, and we cannot afford an Iraq determined to support America's enemies. If post-war Iraq looks as free and democratic as today's Egypt, or Algeria, or Tunisia, but is also as friendly to America as these countries, we've scored a major win - and a major win for Iraq's people, too; Egypt is a lousy place to be, but it's a whole lot better than Saddam's Iraq. So given that I think this, and that it's clear that Rumsfeld's war plan made it harder for us to achieve the desired post-war outcome in Iraq than would otherwise have been the case, why do I think Rummy should keep his job?
Because that call was the President's. I am not going to blame Rumsfeld for setting objectives and achieving them. I even agree with his objectives. If the President had other objectives, he needed to overrule Rummy. He didn't. If he got bad advice that led him not to do so, the giver of that advice is the guy to fire.
And who's that?
Cheney: the Vice President has got to go. I say this reluctantly, because I think Cheney did a marvelous job in his one debate with Joe Lieberman, and convinced me on the basis of that one performance that he was a brilliant pick for the ticket. He's cool, calm, organized, has good relations with the GOP Congress and with the party faithful, and he brought a wealth of experience to the table that Bush was sadly lacking. Bush trusts him, and Cheney appeared to have no independent agenda.
But he is the single most senior figure most to blame for the failures of the Iraq war. It was Cheney who systematically intervened to bias intelligence assessments to play up the danger from Iraq. It was Cheney who most strongly advocated the urgency of war and Cheney who most strongly believed in the potential for the Iraqis to rapidly rebuild their country as a democracy under American tutelage. Cheney is most prominent among senior government officials for being unwilling to admit that Saddam was not involved in 9-11, or that the assessment of the WMD threat was strikingly wrong.
These, though, are not the biggest problems with Cheney. The biggest problem with Cheney is that his hold on the President is too strong. If Cheney were an honest broker without a strong agenda, and presented options fairly to Bush, I could live with their "co-Presidency." But that is not the case. We have every reason to believe that Cheney has repeatedly distorted the information that Bush receives in order to achieve the policy outcome that he (Cheney) advocates. That is unacceptable.
We all understand the President's limitations. He has his strengths - self confidence, decisiveness, ability to think big-picture and to plan long-term, generally good political instincts, strong insight into individual character; but he also has profound weaknesses - laziness, incuriosity, an over-willingness to trust loyal subordinates, refusal to admit error, a general difficulty coping with the idea that reality might not conform to his expectations of it. Bush, given his limitations, is not going to function well without a very strong and loyal #2 who "organizes" the world for him, does the reading, lays out the options and presents them to him for a decision. Get rid of Cheney, and you'll have to find a replacement; we certainly don't want Bush relying on Karl Rove to do this job. But he has to get rid of Cheney, if only to make it clear to the world and to his own staff that he's his own man, that the loyal #2 serves at his pleasure, and he is under no one's control. Cheney has not only brought about a significant policy failure; he has abused his position. There must be a consequence.
Who could replace him? Well, Rice is trusted, loyal, and already has the job of "organizing" the world for Bush, albeit only one part of that world. But Rice's experience is narrower, she has less credibility outside her narrow world, and she brings substantial political liabilities to the position which I've detailed before. And almost anyone else you could name that Bush could pick would have ambitions of his or her own, which would be a real liability in this job. Is Bill Frist really going to be satisfied as Bush's factotum, even assuming he's up to the job?
Of course, this is all fantasy. Bush is never going to get rid of Cheney. But he should. I do not believe that the negative fallout would be significant, and I think the upside in terms of perceptions of his character by those who, in 2002, were sure they'd vote for him in 2004, but now have drifted away from worry or disgust, could be significant. Most important, for the wellbeing of the Republic and for the prosecution of the war, Bush needs to get Cheney out of his current role, even if he retains him in some capacity elsewhere in the organization. Cheney has many talents, but he cannot be trusted to control access to the President, or to be in the position of final arbiter of policy. He's abused that position, and made too many bad calls.
That's my view, anyhow. What's yours?