I hereby deem the Bush administration to be embroiled in a major conflict of interest. Unfortunately, this isn't the kind of conflict of interest that grabs the attention of the Washington press corps—the kind involving small sums of money and petty greed. Rather, it involves substantive policy issues and the fate of the world. It is, in short, a story without legs. But I'll flog it anyway.
The conflict starts with the fact that President-elect Bush, his vice president, and his secretaries of state and defense support building a national missile defense. Now, there is nothing wrong with holding this view (unless you consider supporting an epically bad idea "wrong"). The real wrongness arises by virtue of how prominently these people have identified themselves with this particular bad idea, and the way this identification may compromise other, ostensibly separate, policy decisions.
Take America's recently improving relations with North Korea, for example. All other things being equal, drawing a previously isolated and seemingly belligerent Stalinist regime into the web of modern civilization would seem to be a good thing. But what if a) you have prominently pinned your administration's stature to building a national missile defense system; and b) the logic behind missile defense depends crucially on the existence of isolated, belligerent regimes?
That the Bush administration has moved missile defense to the top of its agenda was evident from yesterday's New York Times. A front-page article recounts how Bush on Monday dramatically "summoned senior lawmakers from both parties" to build support for "his two top defense goals," one of which is missile defense.
The same article explained one reason that Bush feels he must move ahead pronto with missile defense. If preliminary construction isn't underway by this spring, then completion will be delayed past the time when the United States could, according to official estimates, "face the threat of long-range missile attack from countries like North Korea, Iran and Iraq." (And who arrived at these official estimates? A commission headed by Donald Rumsfeld, who will be Bush's secretary of defense.)
The naive reader—or a reader low in testosterone—might ask, "Wait, since there are already gobs of nuclear warheads in Russia and China that could reach us, and Bush isn't arguing that they warrant a national missile defense, why would adding a handful of warheads to that array warrant a national missile defense?"
The more-or-less official answer is that leaders of "rogue states," in contrast to leaders of nonrogue states, wouldn't be deterred by fear of the retaliatory strike that nuclear attack on the United States would bring. I will not here revisit the absurdity of this answer. For present purposes, the point is just that, if Kim Jong-il keeps showing up on television chatting amiably with American officials—as he did in a groundbreaking encounter with outgoing Secretary of State Madeleine Albright—this absurdity could become dangerously evident to the viewing public. Americans might start to suspect Kim of being human and possessing such characteristic human traits as an aversion to death. They might start to ask why plain old nuclear deterrence—which kept America safe from a series of Soviet Commie dictators during the Cold War—couldn't keep America safe from a North Korean Commie dictator.
Would Bush actually sit around with Rumsfeld and Colin Powell strategizing about how to delay the thaw in relations with North Korea that the Clinton administration set in motion? I doubt it. But conflicts of interest can work their magic more subtly, even unconsciously. At the very least, we can safely say that, so long as Bush is trying to sell the nation on missile defense, he will have no political interest in rapprochement with North Korea, or for that matter with Iran or Iraq.
If anyone in the administration is to resist this corrupting logic, it will probably be Powell. True, in his inaugural press conference as secretary of state designee, he called missile defense an "essential part" of overall American strategy. But he also acknowledged international opposition to missile defense and even used the word "negotiations" to describe future discussions with the international community on the subject. And, as secretary of state, he will naturally be more sensitive to that community than Rumsfeld will. (The Times, in an excellent Rumsfeld profile published on Monday, envisioned possible conflict between Rumsfeld and Powell on this issue.)
What's more, Powell, as a famous general, has no need to prove his manhood with macho defense policies. (Coming from the military, he may be more intent on proving his civility.) In contrast, Rumsfeld, during his previous tenure as secretary of defense, was known to go around bragging that he could do 25 one-handed push-ups.