Can Bush hear voice of reason over squawks of hawks?

March 14, 2003|By Clarence Page

WASHINGTON - Is Colin L. Powell getting set up to be the fall guy if the Bush administration's diplomacy fails? Those grinding sounds that you hear in the background are the long knives being sharpened.

"Powell's Credibility Rides on U.N. Vote," shouts a headline over an analysis piece in Sunday's Los Angeles Times.

"`Good Soldier' Powell Killing His Credibility," read a recent column headline in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Alas, the secretary of state is getting hammered by the hawks who've been itching all along to topple Saddam Hussein and "finish the job" the first Persian Gulf war started. They can hardly wait to see Mr. Powell's diplomacy fall on its face.

Meanwhile, critics on the dove side wish Mr. Powell simply had resigned rather than lend his forceful voice to President Bush's arguments for war after Mr. Hussein dragged his heels in complying with inspectors.

Both extremes underestimate a larger, more important point: The buck stops on the president's desk, not that of the secretary of state.

Compared with the true hawks who have captured President Bush's ear on national security, Mr. Powell sounds like a peacenik. Among the most significant is the mostly conservative group of Washington powerhouses who came together as the Project for the New American Century in 1997.

Chaired by William Kristol, founding editor of Rupert Murdoch's The Weekly Standard, the group tried to influence the Clinton administration through letters, position papers and newspaper opinion pieces. The project's goal? Essentially, the reorganization of the planet, beginning with the toppling of Mr. Hussein and protecting "vital American interests" in the Persian Gulf, which, unless I'm mistaken, sounds like a fancy term for "oil."

The project's 40 letter-signers had limited impact on Team Clinton. But after our regime change in 2000, 10 of them became key members of Team Bush, beginning with Vice President Dick Cheney, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and his deputy, Paul Wolfowitz. Other signers have promoted the topple-Hussein message at the sub-Cabinet level.

"In recent years, a handful of conservative defense intellectuals have begun to argue that the United States is indeed acting in an imperialist fashion - and that it should embrace the role," reported a Page One Washington Post profile of the project on Aug. 21, 2001.

Three weeks later, the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks occurred. About 30 hours after the disaster, according to Bob Woodward's book Bush at War, Mr. Rumsfeld asked Mr. Bush why the United States shouldn't act against Iraq, not just al-Qaida.

The administration has yet to tie Mr. Hussein to the Sept. 11 attacks, but politically it has not mattered.

The empire-building notion that America is not only entitled but obligated to engineer regime change in Iraq as the first step to democratizing the world comes right out of Mr. Kristol's editorials and the project's papers.

"I'm a little amused, but pleased and happy that the bus has become more crowded and ... headed in the right direction," Mr. Kristol is quoted as telling The New York Times this week.

As I watch Mr. Kristol handle his new access to power, I'm reminded of Alden Pyle, the idealistic young CIA agent who arrives in the early 1950s to save Vietnam from communism in Graham Greene's The Quiet American. As Thomas Fowler, the aging British journalist and narrator who befriends Mr. Pyle, observes wearily, "I never knew a man who had better motives for all the trouble he caused."

Indeed, the "best and the brightest" who had the ears of Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson had the best of motives, too, as they slowly pushed the United States into the Vietnam quicksand.

Mr. Bush's newly stated goal of bringing democracy to the Persian Gulf sounds great, too, but it also sounds about as achievable as the old goal of "winning the hearts and minds" of the Vietnamese people.

Washington's deep thinkers don't have to win the hearts and minds of the American people in order to succeed. They only have to win over the president.

Clarence Page is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune, a Tribune Publishing newspaper. His column appears Fridays in The Sun. He can be reached via e-mail at cpage@tribune.com.

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