War Stories

Now They Tell Us

Why didn’t Bush’s foreign-policy critics speak out a year ago?

Scowcroft criticizes George Jr.

Two erstwhile loyalists have come out roaring against President George W. Bush this past week, attacking not just his conduct of the war in Iraq but the foundations of his foreign policy generally.

The critics are retired Lt. Gen. Brent Scowcroft, a longtime friend and former national security adviser of Bush’s father, who attacks his targets in a profile by Jeffrey Goldberg in the latest issue of The New Yorker, and retired Col. Lawrence Wilkerson, another admirer of Bush Sr. and Colin Powell’s former chief of staff, who launched his artillery in an Oct. 19 speech at the New America Foundation.

Scowcroft, besides voicing dismay over the invasion of Baghdad, slashes the administration—especially his old friend Dick Cheney and his own former underling Condoleezza Rice—for their “evangelical” notion that they can export democracy at the point of a gun.

Wilkerson goes further, charging Cheney and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld with running foreign policy like a “cabal”—worse still, an “incompetent” cabal that has “courted disaster in Iraq, in North Korea, in Iran.” He says they’ve gotten away with it because the president is “not versed in international relations and not much interested in them either.”

There’s nothing novel about the substance of these critiques; many analysts have made similar points for quite a while. The startling thing here is the critics—consummate insiders, veteran military officers, who as a rule don’t reveal secrets or attack presidents, especially those named Bush.

One question comes to mind, though: What took them so long? Why didn’t they come out and tell us these things, oh, say, a year ago, when their words might have made a difference?

Scowcroft is somewhat exempt from this complaint. He did write an op-ed piece for the Wall Street Journal in August 2002, just as the president was gearing up for war, titled “Don’t Attack Saddam,” in which he argued that Iraq posed no immediate threat and that an invasion would detract from the more urgent war on terrorism. Given his relationship with the Bush family, it was a brave piece to write—and it had consequences. As The New Yorker piece points out, Bush did not renew Scowcroft’s appointment as chairman of the President’s Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board when his term expired in 2004; and his old friends in high office—Rumsfeld, Cheney, Rice, and so forth—stopped speaking to him. Though he didn’t speak out much against the war as it progressed—or against Bush’s fantasy-ridden foreign-policy rhetoric as it took off—at least he’d tried once.

But what’s Wilkerson’s excuse? Where’s he been? During the question-and-answer period at the New America Foundation, he was asked where someone in his position should draw the line between loyalty and disclosure. He replied, “I feel like, as a citizen and as a person very concerned with the military … I need to speak out. … I think when you feel like what you might say has even a remote opportunity to affect some change for the good.”

Sorry, colonel. You had far more than a merely “remote opportunity” to “affect some change” last November. As Bush put it shortly before his second-term inauguration, “We have an accountability moment, and that’s called the 2004 election.” That was Wilkerson’s “accountability moment,” too, and he skipped it.

Which leads to a larger question: Why do so few U.S. government officials do what Wilkerson might now wish he had done—resign in protest and announce their reasons publicly? Dozens of officials and probably hundreds of military officers will speak privately, to their families and friends, about their fundamental disagreements with this administration’s foreign and military policy. But none has spoken publicly.

One who came close was Gen. Eric Shinseki, the Army chief of staff, who, shortly before the war, testified before a congressional committee that a few hundred thousand troops might be needed to occupy Iraq—only to be upbraided, humiliated, and essentially dismissed from office a year before his term was up.

This problem with renegade truth-tellers isn’t an exclusive feature of the George W. Bush administration. Cyrus Vance resigned from his position as Jimmy Carter’s secretary of state in protest over the raid to rescue the hostages in Iran. Vance turned out to be right; the raid was a botch. But no one in government ever hired or openly consulted with Vance again.

Colin Powell might have had Vance in mind when he stayed in office, despite repeated defeats and humiliations in his four years as Bush’s secretary of state. (Perhaps he calmed his conscience by leaking damaging stories to his old friend Bob Woodward.) And since Powell stayed, it would have been doubly—or quadruply—hard for his chief of staff, Wilkerson, to resign, if he’d ever contemplated that course.

Edward Weisband and Thomas M. Franck wrote a breezily insightful book 30 years ago called Resignation in Protest: Political and Ethical Choices Between Loyalty to Team and Loyalty to Conscience in American Public Life. They observed that resignations in protest are common in Britain, where Cabinet ministers tended also to hold parliamentary seats; they could therefore leave the government and still retain power and a constituency. In the American system, officials who quit the president in protest are left with nothing. Not even the opposition party wants them because they’re seen as loose cannons; if they squealed on their current boss, they might squeal on a future boss too.

Conscience-torn military officers confront another barrier—their oaths of loyalty to their civilian commander in chief. Breaking with the president would not only mark the end of their career, their entire way of life; it would violate a key tenet of that life.

And yet when the U.S. Army Command and Staff College issued a reading list for officers deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan, one of the books included—with an asterisk indicating it should be among those read first—was H.R. McMaster’s Dereliction of Duty: Lyndon Johnson, Robert McNamara, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the Lies That Led to Vietnam. McMaster, a West Point graduate, concluded—from extensive research of declassified documents—that the Joint Chiefs had told President Lyndon Johnson and Defense Secretary Robert McNamara that the Vietnam War could not be won without a level of force that no one wanted to commit. Their civilian commanders ignored the Chiefs’ advice, lied about the facts—and the Chiefs went along. McMaster’s point was that through this collusion the Chiefs abrogated their professional responsibility and so had committed a “dereliction of duty.”

How many officers read McMaster’s book, as the Command and Staff College (rather astonishingly) recommended? Why haven’t any of them taken his thesis to heart?

Maybe that’s what Colonel Wilkerson—who is about to start teaching at George Washington University—has finally, if very belatedly, done. And maybe Scowcroft—who has long been extremely secure as the president of his own consulting firm—is doing a bit of that as well.

At one point in his speech, Wilkerson became almost apocalyptic in his warnings about the crew in power:

If something comes along that is truly serious … like a nuclear weapon going off in a major American city or … 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. … Read in there what they say about the necessity of the people to throw off tyranny or to throw off ineptitude. … You’re talking about the potential for, I think, real dangerous times if we don’t get our act together.

There is another critic lurking in the background of The New Yorker article, and if he were ever to step into the light, it would be one of the most sensational protests in history. That third man is the sitting president’s father, George H.W. Bush himself.

Bush père answered Goldberg’s queries via e-mail. Read carefully what he says about the ostensible subject of the profile, Scowcroft:

He has a great propensity for friendship. By that, I mean someone I can depend on to tell me what I need to know and not just what I want to hear. … [He] was very good about making sure that we did not solely consider the “best case,” but instead considered what it would mean if things went our way, and also if they did not.

Isn’t the patriarch talking, implicitly, about the son? Isn’t he saying that W. is in deep trouble because he’s surrounded himself with people who tell him only what he wants to hear and paint only rosy pictures of best-case scenarios? Isn’t he telling his boy to get some real friends?