Now They Tell Us
Why didn't Bush's foreign-policy critics speak out a year ago?
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.
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.