Advise and dissent: Colin Powell's doubts On Politics Today

Jack W. Germond & Jules Witcover

May 06, 1991|By Jack W. Germond & Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON — Washington

WHEN PRESIDENT Bush was asked about the disclosure in a new book that Gen. Colin Powell, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, had favored a policy of containment rather than a military attack against Iraq, Bush responded by pounding the table and insisting, "They are not going to divide us on this."

The president's reaction was characteristic. He always seems to view the disclosure of any disagreements within the administration as a plot to undermine his presidency. But what was most interesting is that he didn't deny the essential point of the story -- that Powell had believed the goals of the United States could have been met with further use of sanctions although it might have taken a year or two.

This information is significant because it makes clear that the decision to launch an offensive rather than wait out the sanctions was a close question indeed. And that insight, in turn, suggests, first, that those Democrats who opposed the war resolution might have some reason to be a little less defensive about it and, second, that the Republicans who have been braying about the weakness of those Democrats might find their case a little more difficult to sustain. No one is likely to accuse Colin Powell of failing "to support our troops."

To anyone who followed the debate with even minimal attention, it was always clear that there were rational arguments that could be made against the policy and, more to the point, arguments that did not suggest a lack of will. At the time that Powell apparently dissented privately, his predecessor as chairman of the JCS, Adm. William Crowe, was dissenting publicly, as did three former secretaries of defense and such stalwart supporters of the military as senators Sam Nunn of Georgia and Lloyd Benten of Texas.

At the time, these expressions of opposition to an offensive war and the votes against such immediate action in Congress were viewed as honest expressions of opinion reached after considerable soul-searching. It was only after the military option proved to be such a stunningly unqualified success that those on the "right" side began seizing the partisan high ground by suggesting a lack of proper patriotism on the part of the dissenters.

But even though the war was conducted without heavy casualties, the primary concern of the dissenters, the messiness of the aftermath, lends weight to their concern that President Bush had not thought through the long-term consequences of his policy. Saddam Hussein remains in power. The Middle East is no more stable than it was before the war. Kuwait has not become a showcase of democracy. The human costs have been enormous.

In Powell's case, it is clear, as Bush pointed out, that the chairman of the JCS "couldn't have been a better team player and couldn't have been a more sterling military commander" once the decision was made to take the offensive. But so far the Republicans have not been willing to give similar credit to the Democrats who dissented with their votes, then pledged their support to the commander in chief.

Defending Powell, the president said: "I'm one that doesn't believe in trying to point out differences. The advice I get -- if an adviser of mine, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, the secretary of defense, the secretary of state, thought that every time they gave advice it was going to be advertised, I wouldn't get any advice. People don't want to do that. And these people dealt frankly -- and of course you're going to have some that think one thing is going to work. But nobody could have been more supportive, and nobody could have done his job better than Colin Powell, whether it's giving advice to the president or whether it was saluting and marching to the orders of the president when we decided to go to war. . . ."

Bush's defense of advisers who advise can be applied to Congress, as well. The resolutions that confronted the Senate and House in January asked each member for his or her best advice. And, at the time, their votes were viewed in that light.

No one would dare question the patriotism of Colin Powell; nor should anyone be entitled to question the patriotism of those who agreed with him at the time that a policy of containment was the wiser course. But this is an age of lowest-common-denominator politics, so those who dissented are inevitably on the defensive in the campaign of 1992.

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