Now They Tell Us
Why didn't Bush's foreign-policy critics speak out a year ago?
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.
Fred Kaplan is Slate's "War Stories" columnist and author of the book, The Insurgents: David Petraeus and the Plot to Change the American Way of War. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter.
Photograph of Brent Scowcroft by Richard Ellis, Agence France-Presse.