Sunday, October 23, 2005

The Dangers of a Cabal

"[N]either Powell nor Armitage had or has much trust or respect for Rice, and they share with other senior Republican wisemen the conviction that Rumsfeld is quite literally mad, and Cheney a dangerous, vindictive monomaniac."

-- The Nelson Report, 20 October 2005, reprinted at Washington Note
Cenk Uygur at the Huffington Post and political reporter Dan Froomkin of the Washington Post both complained this past week that too few news outlets paid attention to the extraordinary speech by Col. Lawrence Wilkerson. It was delivered to a mixed audience of policy experts, journalists, and academics at the New America Foundation, a politically independent Washington public policy institute.

Col. Wilkerson's resume is long and impressive. He has been Executive Assistant to U.S. Navy Admiral Stewart Ring, Director of the U.S. Marine War College, professor at the U.S. War College, and Chief of Staff for the U.S. State Department under former department Secretary Colin Powell. He is said to be a Republican, although he's served in every one of the last four administrations.

As Froomkin said, the speech "didn't make the front page... but it seems to me that it's a big deal when a former top administration official declares that a secret cabal led by the vice president has hijacked U.S. foreign policy, inveigled the president, condoned torture and crippled the ability of the government to respond to emergencies."

Brian Knowlton's report in Friday's The New York Times was typical of what little news coverage there was. Just like Froomkin, he focussed on those parts of Wilkerson's address which harshly criticized the Bush administration for its through-and-through incompetence:
"I would say that we have courted disaster, in Iraq, in North Korea, in Iran, generally with regard to domestic crises like Katrina, Rita - and I could go on back," he said. "We haven't done very well on anything like that in a long time."

Mr. Wilkerson suggested that the dysfunction within the administration was so grave that "if something comes along that is truly serious, truly serious, something like a nuclear weapon going off in a major American city, or something like 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."

Mr. Wilkerson, a retired Army colonel and former director of the Marine Corps War College, said that in his years in or close to government, he had seen its national security apparatus twisted in many ways. But what he saw in Mr. Bush's first term "was a case that I have never seen in my studies of aberration, bastardizations" and "perturbations."

"What I saw was a cabal between the vice president of the United States, Richard Cheney, and the secretary of defense, Donald Rumsfeld, on critical issues," he said.
One can understand the emphasis of the newspaper accounts. It was a week that began with a hoaxed-up terrorism scare about New York subways and ended with a number of heavyweights in the Republican Party itself, perhaps most notably David Gergen ("This is a presidency that has almost collapsed") speaking out against the Bush administration's war policy, cronyism, the Miers Supreme Court nomination, and still bumbling emergency management.

But there was much more to Wilkerson's speech than the headlines and snap quotes convey. New America Foundation has the live video. The Washington Note has the transcript. Listening to or reading the entire speech puts the truncated quotes used by the media in an enlightening historical and contemporary context.

This was no cheap political potshot, as some may assume. Col. Wilkerson is sounding the alarm for all who value American democracy. At the core of the speech, he articulates three convictions and draws some hugely important implications.

Wilkinson's three convictions:

(1) The National Security Act of 1947 was fashioned as much to guarantee popular democratic control of U.S. diplomacy and the strategic use of miltary force (to the maximum extent possible in the post-W.W.II world) as it was to reorganize intelligence gathering and analysis within the government itself;

(2) The framers of the Act were every bit as far-sighted as the revered Framers of the U.S. Constitution. They had lived through war years when national power necessarily was concentrated, as never before, in a president and a tight circle of trusted military advisors. Franklin Roosevelt was a brilliant, benign, and beloved leader. But in the future, these modern 'Framers' knew we were unlikely to be so lucky. Accordingly, they sought to ensure that "the fundamental decisions about foreign policy should not be made in secret." In fashioning the 1947 National Security Act, they --
didn’t want the secrecy, they didn’t want the concentration of power, they didn’t want the lack of transparency into principal decisions that got people killed, even though they’d been successful in arguably one of the greatest conflicts the world has seen. And so they set about trying to ensure that this wouldn’t happen again.
(3) All of this was and is threatened by the "cabal" of Cheney and Rumsfeld. Condoleeza Rice should have carried out the duties of National Security Advisor as they have evolved under the 1947 Act, to be a "balancer," to "make sure all opinions got to the president ... every dissent got to the president ... ." Instead, she "actually was a part of the problem," Wilkerson says. Instead of being a "balancer" who made sure the president knew all sides and views, "she made a decision that she would side with the president to build her intimacy with the president."
And so what you had... you had this incredible process where the formal process, the statutory process, the policy coordinating committee, the deputies committee, the principal’s committee, all camouflaged – the dysfunctionality camouflaged the ... secret decision-making process.
As for implications, Wilkerson makes no bones about the fact that "America is paying the consequences."
You and I and every other citizen like us is paying the consequences, whether it is a response to Katrina that was less than adequate certainly, or whether it is the situation in Iraq, which still goes unexplained.
The army, he says, is in such "bad shape" it likely will have to be rebuilt anew. The detainee abuse problem is, he argues, another concrete example. Never before in our history have we had "presidential involvement, a secretarial involvement, a vice-presidential involvement, an attorney general involvement in [giving] our troops essentially carte blanche... ." In time, he says, we will look back and be "ashamed of what we allowed to happen."

Essentially, Wilkerson says that we've screwed things up so much in Iraq that it is a near-certainty we will have to "mobilize the nation, put 5 million men and women under arms and go back and take the Middle East within a decade. That's what we'll have to do."

There is one last implication, an undercurrent in Wilkerson's speech rather than an explicit statement. Left unchecked-and-unbalanced by Congress or another branch of government, he seems to be hinting, the Cheney-Rumsfeld secrecy cabal is undermining the very democracy that our Founding Fathers created and the authors of the 1947 National Security Act sought to ensure as our enduring legacy.

Wilkerson's message is that as a nation we can survive incompetence, secrecy, and even stupidity in our leaders. But our civil liberties, and democracy itself, cannot survive if the "checks and balances" built into the National Security decision-making system are not revived and repaired by Congress.

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