Until the very moment when the White House announced Colin Powell’s resignation by “mutual” agreement, worried friends of the United States around the world hoped that the Secretary of State would somehow linger to argue for a realistic, multilateral foreign policy. Those friends knew that Mr. Powell was ineffectual in making those arguments more often than not, and they regarded him as sadly discredited by his participation in the fakery that led to the Iraq war. Still they cherished him as a symbol, at least, of an America that sought to lead rather than merely dominate and to listen rather than just dictate.
As observers of the Bush administration are quickly discovering, even the abject loyalty demonstrated by Mr. Powell is not sufficient for survival in the new era of “the mandate.” The fact that many voters supported the President despite severe misgivings about the nation’s direction is of no concern to the White House. The order of the day is extirpation of dissent and debate. Competence is dismissed while conformity rules. To disagree is to be purged, as Mr. Powell now understands.
The rise of Condoleezza Rice demonstrates this disturbing trend, however inspiring it is to see the first black woman appointed Secretary of State. As National Security Advisor, Ms. Rice nimbly abandoned her own once-cautious views to echo those of the dominant faction in the White House and the Pentagon. She repeatedly proved her willingness to prevaricate, whether to conceal the administration’s missteps before Sept. 11 or to promote myths about Saddam Hussein’s arsenal.
Historians will someday ask how Ms. Rice escaped accountability for neglecting urgent warnings about Al Qaeda by former counterterrorism chief Richard Clarke, former C.I.A. director George Tenet and others during the summer of 2001. They will wonder why she endorsed a decision to wage war based on patently false “intelligence” about Iraq’s nonexistent nuclear capacity. Did she know that the aluminum tubes supposedly intended for uranium enrichment were not suited to that purpose, as the government’s experts explained? Did she ignore evidence that the Niger uranium tale had been concocted from a forgery? She has never given convincing answers, leaving her integrity and competence in doubt.
Like her boss, Ms. Rice wishes to be seen as strong and decisive. No matter how wrong she may be, she is never in doubt. Doubt surrounds her nevertheless, due to her inability to manage the policymaking process in the National Security Council. The result has been confusion in dealing with the most serious challenges we face in stopping nuclear proliferation in North Korea and Iran. As The Washington Post recently noted, officials on both sides of such policy conflicts have “faulted Rice for failing to fashion a coherent approach.” Such shortcomings didn’t matter so long as she cultivated her strong personal relationship with the President-and told him whatever he wanted to hear.
In the months to come, Ms. Rice can be expected to enforce whatever purging of State Department professionals is required of her. That means throwing out the diplomats who correctly warned of the difficulties and complexities inherent in pacifying post-Saddam Iraq. Those patriotic bureaucrats will soon pay dearly for trying to forestall disaster.
So will their counterparts at the C.I.A., where Porter Goss, the new director of central intelligence, is busily removing veteran analysts suspected of “disloyalty” to the President. (Did they take an oath to serve him, or to serve the United States?) A former Republican Congressman from Florida who served in the agency three decades ago, Mr. Goss is proving that he can carry out political orders as reliably as Ms. Rice.
The 9/11 Commission disparaged the House Intelligence Committee under Mr. Goss’ chairmanship as “dysfunctional”- hardly a testament to his qualifications for this crucial job. As experienced professionals continue to quit in disgust, Mr. Goss and his deputies are already creating wreckage that will be difficult to repair. At the C.I.A. as in the State Department, partisan politics is in command. Experience to date suggests that the consequences will be grave.
If Mr. Bush truly hopes to rebuild damaged relationships with our allies and restore America’s international prestige, as he has hinted since the election, he would have pleaded with the Secretary of State to stay. Exhausted and dispirited as Mr. Powell reportedly is, he would not have turned down the President. And if Mr. Bush wants to salvage his dreams of democracy in Iraq, he would have asked for the resignations of the war’s bumbling planners instead.
Mr. Powell had to go not because he was wrong, but because he came too close to being right. He acquiesced to ruinous decisions when he should have resigned, yet he displayed too much independence to be tolerated. The President evidently believes that eliminating everyone who dares to tell him the truth will somehow erase his mistakes. This is not a sign of strength, but of the most dangerous weakness.