Government by Op-Ed

It must be hell to disagree with Colin Powell. Powell and Vice President Dick Cheney apparently disagree about Iraq. Cheney thinks that Saddam Hussein must be toppled and any further diddling is pointless. Powell thinks … well, something else. Cheney made his opinion known by articulating and defending it in a speech. Powell’s view, if you read the papers literally, has spread by a mysterious process akin to osmosis. The secretary of state is “known to believe” or is pigeonholed by unnamed “associates” or (my favorite) has made his opinion known “quietly.”

And yet somehow, without an audible peep, Powell has managed to dominate the public debate about whether to make war against Iraq. How does he do it? Maybe, like dogs, State Department reporters can hear frequencies beyond the range available to the normal human ear. Or maybe, just maybe, Powell has made his case using the same basic method as Cheney—that is, by opening his yap and letting words come out—only doing so with small audiences of reliably discreet journalists rather than at a convention of the Veterans of Foreign Wars.

“As the debate over Iraq has intensified in recent weeks,” the New York Times deadpanned on Tuesday, after days of reporting Powell’s opinion, “one voice has been conspicuously absent.” The article went on to explore the alleged mystery of Powell’s silence, undeterred by the fact that he obviously has not been silent or the strong likelihood that more than one person at the Times knows this from personal experience.

A fellow journalist told me the other day that he admires Powell for making his disagreement clear without being publicly disloyal to the president. This is indeed the conventional view among the media. But it is peculiar, if not flatly wrong, on both counts. Clear is exactly what Powell’s objection is not. He’s against an immediate, irrevocable commitment to off Saddam Hussein. But where he draws the line short of that, and why, are unknown—or at least unreported—and untested. If you don’t publicly state your position, you don’t have to defend it.

Second, if Powell’s view is not that of the president, he is only avoiding “public” disloyalty in terms of the comic distinction—treasured by the media and meaningless to everyone else—between things said publicly and things said “privately” to people who are certain to make them front-page news. If Powell’s views were clearly in conflict with those of President Bush, spreading them furtively would be doubly disloyal.

But Bush’s role in this debate is not to have a clear view of his own. Until the past few days, his position seemed clear: This Means War. What exactly means war was not entirely clear, but the war part was. Now he has wisely retreated to lack of clarity on both the whether and the why. This allows him to function like a holy rock for which all the squabbling tribal elders can claim to be speaking. The rock is irrevocably committed to “regime change.” The rock has never wavered in its call for the return of inspectors. Meanwhile the rock’s channeler-in-chief, Ari Fleischer, insists that there is no disagreement even among the rock’s advisers. Colin Powell disagrees with him about that.

“Disarray” is the approved label for the peculiar process by which this nation is deciding whether to go to war against Iraq. Enormous power has been vested in the editors of newspaper op-ed pages, who get to decide which former official of the previous Bush administration will get the next opportunity to remind the world that he is still alive. Bush du Jour lets his people squabble in public. All deplorably chaotic to the orderly minds of foreign policy land.

But a better word than disarray might be democracy. In theory, at least, it’s like a high-minded Jeffersonian dream that the national debate about war and peace should be framed by a series of essays penned by former government officials who have withdrawn to their farms, ranches, consulting firms, and suchlike contemplative retreats. And Bush’s sudden eagerness for a public debate and some kind of formal approval from Congress—though probably the result of a (justified) panic attack—may help to reverse the longest-running scandal in constitutional law: two centuries of erosion in Congress’ power to declare war.

In practice, a bunch of turgid, self-regarding pronunciamentos, full of half-hidden agendas, possibly ghost-written though hardly by Thomas Jefferson’s ghost, are not exactly the Federalist Papers. And the general desirability of vigorous debate doesn’t solve the puzzle of how a top official who is unhappy about some administration policy should balance the demands of loyalty and honesty.

In theory, once again, this one’s easy: The official should argue vigorously then rally ‘round. In practice, it’s trickier. Does arguing vigorously include arguing publicly? Does rallying ‘round mean defending a policy you don’t believe in? On most issues, there is room for a fudge factor in all of this. But if the issue is war, in which many thousands of people undoubtedly will die, the cause had better be transcendently important.

The Bush administration will decide in the next few weeks that the cause is worth the blood, or that it isn’t. In either case, shouldn’t someone resign?