Bush's troubling aversion to contrary views

October 28, 2005|By TRUDY RUBIN

PHILADELPHIA -- One of the most important critiques of President Bush's foreign policy has just been put forward by a close friend of his father's.

In a stunning profile in the Oct. 31 issue of The New Yorker, Brent Scowcroft, national security adviser to the first President Bush, lays bare the policy flaw that turned postwar Iraq sour.

Its most important point: Mr. Bush's foreign policy has been undercut by the president's unwillingness to listen to ideas that conflict with his convictions. It is a devastating portrait of a president cut off from contrary views.

Mr. Scowcroft comes from the realist school of foreign policy that believes America should act according to its interests, not embark on moral crusades. He helped persuade George H. W. Bush to roll back Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait. But he warned before the 2003 invasion of Iraq that Mr. Hussein was not an imminent threat and that an invasion would worsen, not help, the war on terrorism.

He further warned that democracy in a Mideast with no history of such was not a panacea and could sweep Islamist movements into power. He also argued that an Iraq war would do nothing to solve the key conflict between Palestinians and Israelis.

But despite Mr. Scowcroft's intimate friendship with the elder Mr. Bush (whose memoirs he co-authored), he was never able to deliver his message in person to the White House. Despite the fact that Vice President Dick Cheney was his friend and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was his protege, Mr. Scowcroft had to deliver his prewar warning via an August 2002 op-ed in The Wall Street Journal.

And according to The New Yorker article, the elder Mr. Bush is still unable to arrange a policy meeting between his friend and his son. Mr. Scowcroft has been frozen out. This is not the first time former White House officials have complained about the closed minds of the current Bush team. Former Treasury Secretary Paul H. O'Neill, who served in four Republican administrations, wrote that he never worked for a White House so closed to debate.

Last week, Col. Lawrence Wilkerson, former Secretary of State Colin L. Powell's chief of staff, gave a bombshell speech in Washington accusing the younger Mr. Bush of letting a Dick Cheney-Donald H. Rumsfeld "cabal" control foreign policy.

John H. Sununu, chief of staff to the elder Mr. Bush, told The New Yorker, "We always made sure the president was hearing all the possibilities. That's one of the differences between the first Bush administration and this Bush administration."

Even President Bush's father has weighed in. When asked about Mr. Scowcroft's most useful qualities as national security adviser, he replied that Mr. Scowcroft "was very good about making sure that we did not simply consider the `best case,' but instead considered what it would mean if things went our way, and also if they did not."

That sounds like an oblique reference to the younger Mr. Bush's allergy to contrary views. The issues raised by The New Yorker article shed light on the investigation by special prosecutor Patrick J. Fitzgerald into who leaked the name of a CIA operative to the media. Apart from the legal issues, the leak case lays bare the hypersensitive reaction of top administration officials to any criticism of the Iraq war.

It also reflects the narrow approach that left the White House so unready for the aftermath of the Iraq invasion. Mr. Scowcroft brands key administration players as "utopians" who brushed away any doubts about the ease of imposing democracy on Iraq and therefore were unprepared for the war's downside.

And Mr. Scowcroft has proved prescient about elections alone not being enough to make a democracy. Nearly 80 percent of voters said yes to Iraq's constitution, for example, in a referendum whose results were announced Tuesday. But the vote split entirely along ethnic lines. Senior Iraqi officials tell me that the vote is unlikely to have any effect on the violence.

The troubles in Iraq seem to have opened a chink in the White House barrier to fresh foreign-policy thinking. The administration has tempered its hopes for speedy regime change in the Middle East and North Korea. Yet the White House has hardly become a hotbed of competing ideas.

Despite endorsing a Palestinian state, Mr. Bush appears closed to critics, such as Mr. Scowcroft, who say a more active U.S. policy is needed to get there. Mr. Bush seems unwilling to use the political capital necessary to keep that conflict from exploding again.

And Mr. Bush has not invited Mr. Scowcroft to Camp David. Were that to happen, one might believe that the president was finally open to a healthy exchange of ideas, which would be a welcome development for policy in the Middle East.

Trudy Rubin is a columnist for The Philadelphia Inquirer. Her column appears Tuesdays and Fridays in The Sun.

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