Jewish World Review March 14, 2003 / 10 Adar II 5763
Powell's battle for Bush's ear
Is Colin Powell getting set up to be the fall guy if the Bush administration's diplomacy fails? Those grinding sounds that you hear in the background are the long knives being sharpened.
"Powell's Credibility Rides on U.N. Vote" shouts a headline over an analysis piece in last Sunday's Los Angeles Times.
"'Good Soldier' Powell Killing His Credibility," raid a recent column headline in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
Alas, the secretary of state is getting hammered by the hawks who've been itching all along to topple Saddam Hussein and "finish the job" the first Persian Gulf war started. They can hardly wait to see Powell's diplomacy fall on its face.
Meanwhile, critics on the dove side wish Powell simply had resigned rather than lend his forceful voice to President Bush's arguments for war after Saddam dragged his heels in complying with weapons inspectors.
Both extremes underestimate a larger, more important point: The buck stops on the president's desk, not that of the secretary of state.
No matter how this Iraq confrontation comes out, Powell is well-positioned to be remembered for his efforts to seek UN support before going to war. That's not a bad place for him to be. It also matches what most Americans tell pollsters they want.
Besides, compared to the true hawks who have captured Bush's ear on national security, Powell sounds like a peacenik.
Among the most significant is the mostly conservative group of Washington powerhouses who came together as the Project for the New American Century (www.newamericancentury.org) in 1997.
Chaired by William Kristol, founding editor of Rupert Murdoch's The Weekly Standard, the group tried to influence the Clinton administration through letters, position papers and newspaper opinion pieces. The Project's goal? Essentially, the reorganization of the planet, beginning with the toppling of Saddam and the protecting of "vital American interests" in the Persian Gulf, which, unless I'm mistaken, sounds like a fancy term for "oil."
The Project's 40 letter signers had limited impact on Team Clinton. But, after our regime change in 2000, ten of them became key members of Team Bush, beginning with Vice President Cheney, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and Rumsfeld's Deputy Secretary, Paul Wolfowitz. Other signers have promoted the topple-Saddam message at the sub-Cabinet level.
"In recent years, a handful of conservative defense intellectuals have begun to argue that the United States is indeed acting in an imperialist fashion - and that it should embrace the role," reported a page-one Washington Post profile of the Project on Aug. 21, 2001. The story was headlined "Empire or Not? A Quiet Debate Over U.S. Role."
Three weeks later, the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks occurred. About 30 hours after the disaster, according to Bob Woodward's book "Bush at War," Rumsfeld asked Bush why the United States shouldn't act against Iraq, not just Al-Qaeda.
The administration has yet to tie Saddam to the Sept. 11 attacks, but politically it has not mattered. A recent New York Times-CBS News poll shows that 42 percent of those responding believe that Saddam had a hand in the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks anyway. With Bush repeatedly putting the Sept. 11 attacks and "Iraq" into the same sentences, it has not taken long for much of the country to link them without waiting for evidence.
So, when Bush recently expanded his goal from merely toppling Saddam to planting the seeds of democracy throughout the Persian Gulf region, he raised a lot of eyebrows. During his Oct. 11, 2000 debate with Vice President Al Gore, Bush said, "I don't think our troops ought to be used for what's called nation building."
But the empire-building notion that America is not only entitled but obligated to engineer regime change in Iraq as the first step to democratizing the world comes right out of Kristol's editorials and the Project's papers.
"I'm a little amused, but pleased and happy that the bus has become more crowded and . headed in the right direction," Kristol is quoted as telling The New York Times this week.
As I watch Kristol, with whom I have sparred on some TV talk shows, handle his new access to power, I'm reminded of Alden Pyle, the idealistic young CIA agent who arrives in the early 1950s to save Vietnam from communism in Graham Greene's "The Quiet American." As Thomas Fowler, the aging British journalist and narrator who befriends Pyle, observes wearily, "I never knew a man who had better motives for all the trouble he caused."
Indeed, the "best and the brightest" who had the ears of Presidents Kennedy and Johnson had the best of motives, too, as they slowly pushed the United States into the Vietnam quicksand.
Bush's newly stated goal of bringing democracy to the Persian Gulf sounds like a great one, too, but it also sounds about as achievable as the old goal of "winning the hearts and minds" of the Vietnamese people.
Washington's deep thinkers don't have to win the hearts and minds of the American people in order to succeed. They only have to win over the President.
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