So many Brutuses, so few Antonys, President Bush must be saying. (No, really, he could be a fan of “Julius Caesar.”) No president may have taken as many wounds from men high in his administration while he is still in power. So many of them are trusted and doting friends of his dad, Bush 41, that the president must be wondering what the old man is up to.
It is frightening when you think about it, that ordinarily loyal men are compelled to speak out against their commander when he still has three years of tenure remaining. The criticism of the president and his administration from insiders is increasingly apocalyptic.
In the past 18 months, the president has taken cuts from, among others, his former special assistant on terrorism, Richard Clarke; the director of his office of faith-based initiatives, John DiIulio; and his treasury secretary, Paul O’Neill. The criticism ran pretty much in the same direction. The president was disconnected and largely uninformed when he made decisions, and the senior White House staff — the “Mayberry Machiavellis” in DiIulio’s famous characterization — were a bunch of plotters run by the cunning and mean Karl Rove.
Last week, Lawrence B. Wilkerson, former Secretary of State Colin Powell’s chief of staff, reflected on that assessment, with which he agreed, with genuine horror. In a speech to the New America Foundation, a nonpartisan public policy institute, Wilkerson said the government of which he was a part until this year was run by a cabal of Vice President Dick Cheney, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and a few of their subordinate plotters, like Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Douglas J. Feith (“Seldom in my life have I met a dumber man,” he said, cleaning up an estimate reputedly made by Gen. Tommy Franks, former commander of U.S. forces in Iraq). George W. Bush is sort of an unwitting and incurious partner.
Wilkerson, a former colonel who directed the Marine Corps War College and was a senior policy planner in the State Department, is perhaps the nation’s most knowledgeable authority on national security. He reveres the first President Bush he served, “one of the finest presidents we’ve ever had,” because Bush understood diplomacy and was an adept decision-maker when it came to national security.
But the younger Bush knows nothing and cares little about diplomacy or the art of planning and decision-making and he is an easy mark for the men like Cheney who wield the real power. (Brent Scowcroft, the elder Bush’s national security adviser, said this month that the younger Bush’s key foreign policy initiatives were failures and that he found Cheney, with whom he once worked closely for the elder Bush, unrecognizable.)
They all love to make decisions in secret, where no dissent or other ideas enter the process, which Wilkerson said always leads to disaster because the bureaucracy and the military must carry out decisions they did not understand and might not support.
“So you’ve got this collegiality between the secretary of Defense and the vice president, and you’ve got a president who is not versed in international relations and not too much interested in them either.” Wilkerson said. “So it’s not too difficult to make decisions in this what I call Oval Office cabal, decisions that often are the opposite of what you’d thought were made in the formal process.”
“I would say that we have courted disaster in Iraq, in North Korea, in Iran. Generally with regard to domestic crises like Katrina, Rita — and I could go on back — we haven’t done very well on anything like that in a long time. And if something comes along that is truly serious — truly serious — something like a nuclear weapon going off in a major American city, or something like a major pandemic, you are going to see the ineptitude of this government in a way that will take you back to the Declaration of Independence.”
Wilkerson’s ultimate disillusionment followed the administration’s doctoring of evidence of weapons of mass destruction to justify the invasion of Iraq.
“I wish I had not been involved in it,” he said. “I look back on it and I still say it was the lowest point in my life.” He remembered the day in January 2003 when Powell burst into his office with a sheaf of papers and told him that the White House wanted him to say all of that to the United Nations. He and Powell spent four days and nights in a CIA conference room seeking evidence to support the allegations. They were never told that much of it came from Ahmad Chalabi, the discredited and crooked Iraqi whom Rumsfeld and Cheney admired, or another informer known in the CIA as “Curveball” because his information invariably turned out to be lies.
CIA Director George Tenet had to call Powell repeatedly after the UN speech to inform him that one element after another of his speech actually was not true.
“It’s fair to say the secretary and Mr. Tenet, at that point, ceased being close.”
The country has paid a dear price for the lies, secrecy and arrogance and for the president’s lack of even basic curiosity. And this man who was so near the throne tells us that far worse is yet to come.