Aberrations, bastardizations and cabals

by Henry on October 19, 2005

This, from Powell’s former chief-of-staff, is worth reading. I suspect we’ll be seeing a lot more score-settling speeches like this as message discipline among former administration types breaks down irrevocably. Scroll down – the venomous stuff is mostly towards the bottom.

But the case that I saw for 4 plus years was a case that I have never seen in my studies of aberration, bastardizations, [UI], changes to the national security [UI] process. What I saw was a cabal between the Vice President of the United States, Richard Cheney, and the Secretary of Defense and [UI] on critical issues that made decisions that the bureaucracy did not know were being made.
Read George Packer’s book The Assassin’s [Gate] if you haven’t already. George Packer, a New Yorker, reporter for The New Yorker, has got it right. I just finished it and I usually put marginalia in a book but, let me tell you, I had to get extra pages to write on. And I wish, I wish I had been able to help George Packer write that book. In some places I could have given him a hell of a lot more specifics than he’s got. But if you want to read how the Cheney Rumsfeld cabal flummoxed the process, read that book. And, of course, there are other names in there, Under Secretary of Defense Douglas [Feith], whom most of you probably know Tommy Frank said was stupidest blankety blank man in the world. He was. Let me testify to that. He was. Seldom in my life have I met a dumber man.
And yet, and yet, after the Secretary of State agrees to a $400 billion department, rather than a $30 billion department, having control, at least in the immediate post-war period in Iraq, this man is put in charge. Not only is he put in charge, he is given carte blanche to tell the State Department to go screw themselves in a closet somewhere. That’s not making excuses for the State Department. …
[UI] tell you how many contractors who did billion dollars or so business with the Defense Department that we have in 1988 and how many do we have now. And they’re always working together. If one of them is the lead on the satellite program, I hope there’s some Lockheed and Grumman and others here today [UI] if one of them’s a lead on satellites, the others are subs. And they’ve learned their lesson there in every state.
They’ve got every Congressman, every Senator, they got it covered. Now, it’s not to say that they aren’t smart businessmen. They are, and women. They are. But it’s something we should be looking at, something we should be looking at. So you’ve got this collegiality there between the Secretary of Defense and the Vice President. And then you’ve got a President who is not versed in international relations. And not too much interested in them either.

{ 20 comments }

1

dearieme 10.19.05 at 10:32 pm

Fascinating. I thought Bush the Elder a fine President: so does this chap. (Replaced by Clinton – dear God!) I’d formed the view that FDR was a bloody menace and Truman infinitely superior – this chap says that the men of 1947 thought so too. So I am very receptive to his message that the great Iraq cock-up is indeed a cock-up as seen from inside, not just from outside. But I’m still not clear on the motives of Cheney and Rumsfeld (but at least I now know that W’s motives don’t seem too relevant). Now then, what are the lessons for the UK?

2

Sven 10.19.05 at 10:34 pm

You can also watch the whole speech here.

3

Tom T. 10.19.05 at 11:33 pm

It is entertaining to see this sort of thing, but the full speech is so elliptical and garbled that it’s a bit comical. I picture the man roaring drunk at a podium, waving a glass and angrily slurring his words: “They were (hic) making decisions, dammit! DESHISIONS! And you know what was worse!? They were colleel- congen- collegial! Their decisions were collegial!” Slumps into his seat, head dips down, snoring and muttering. Occasionally pops up and bellows an epithet: “Satellites!” “Subs!” Zzzzzzz…

I mean, really: “My studies of aberration, bastardizations”? “They didn’t jump through their rear end like Joe Biden wanted to do”?

More substantively, I can’t help but look a little bit askance at his thesis that it’s dangerous to our democracy when the elected head of government makes policy decisions instead of deferring to the career bureaucracy.

4

luci phyrr 10.20.05 at 1:23 am

Yes, that’s one rambling man. He was either incoherent from his frustration at the State Dept getting shut out of the foreign policy decision making process, or he’s just incoherent in general. I didn’t learn much: maybe his tone was an indicator of “how bad things are”, but I haven’t a clue.

5

bert 10.20.05 at 1:53 am

Under normal circumstances this feeble attack would bounce off harmlessly. A “rambling/incoherent” talking point would be doing the rounds, and steps would be underway to make sure Mr Wilkerson ended his days eating out of dumpsters and shouting at traffic.

But in these matters timing is everything.

[Warning: Readers with a history of heart problems should consult a doctor before sustained speculative schadenfreude]

6

nick s 10.20.05 at 2:48 am

I get the feeling that, in places, the speech uses a kind of shorthand that makes sense if you’ve been in the White House loop.

I can’t help but look a little bit askance at his thesis that it’s dangerous to our democracy when the elected head of government makes policy decisions instead of deferring to the career bureaucracy.

Oh, I can, and not just because of Yes, Minister. He basically invokes Bryce’s thesis that the American political system makes it easier for mediocre individuals to be elected president than those who have talent and experience; and that to some extent, the system was built that way, so that individual capability would never slide into demagoguery. (Although the US and the role of the presidency has changed drastically since Bryce’s time, his observations remain pretty relevant.) Anyway, as Wilkerson says:

I don’t think even his critics would have argued that FDR wasn’t a brilliant politician and a brilliant leader. But let’s think about it for a moment. If you’re one of the framers. How often does America get brilliant leaders? Put them down on paper. I can count them myself on one hand.

You can perhaps count them on 2 hands and make persuasive arguments for the additions. I prefer one hand. So we need a system of checks and balances and institutional fabric that can withstand anybody, or at least nearly so. You laugh, but I’m not trying to solicit your laughter.

In that context, I suppose Wilkerson’s chief complaint is that Cheney really revolutionised an office (and a staff) that, both constitutionally and historically, isn’t meant to be worth a bucket of spit, and thus short-circuited both the intentions of the 1947 Act and the notion that the other branches would take up the slack.

7

abb1 10.20.05 at 3:49 am

sweet

8

tvd 10.20.05 at 3:58 am

…he is given carte blanche to tell the State Department to go screw themselves in a closet somewhere.

Cool. Madeleine Albright and State killed half a million Iraqi women and children with the sanctions.

(Probably between zero and 20,000, but that’s not the Muslim world’s perception. Their cleverness created more ill will than the actual war. At least outside the US and Europe.)

9

Anna in Cairo 10.20.05 at 4:43 am

“Their cleverness created more ill will than the actual war.”

Well, no. Yes, it created a hell of a lot of ill will. Particularly when Albright went on national TV and said that it was “worth it.” But the Bush II war has sent the cart of Muslim opinion about US foreign policy hurtling downward ever faster and deeper. I think we’re in Dante’s lowest territories now.

Also, though I do think the expression is very angry and sometimes a bit too emphatic for my taste, it is not incoherent. But I used to be a State Department flack so I got very used to hearing careerist grumbling about political machinations of appointees and high level officials (though not in public, and not this vociferous).

10

a 10.20.05 at 6:44 am

“How often does America get brilliant leaders?”

If by “brilliant” you mean that they read Wittgenstein at night, then not very often.

But George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Monroe, Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt, and (maybe) JFK surely don’t compare too unfavorably to a similar list put forward by any other country over a comparable period.

11

Jeremy Osner 10.20.05 at 7:48 am

But George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Monroe, Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt, and (maybe) JFK surely don’t compare too unfavorably to a similar list put forward by any other country over a comparable period.

Making the point you’re opposed to. You listed 8 people (“You can perhaps count them on 2 hands and make persuasive arguments for the additions”) over a period of 2 centuries. That other countries have a similar shortage of brilliance reinforces the point.

12

Daniel 10.20.05 at 7:57 am

You listed 8 people (“You can perhaps count them on 2 hands and make persuasive arguments for the additions”) over a period of 2 centuries

But that’s roughly 50 years of presidency. It seems to me as if America’s been run by a genius roughly one year in four, which doesn’t seem like a bad average.

13

abb1 10.20.05 at 7:57 am

JFK’s a brilliant leader? About as brilliant as Bush II.

14

jacob 10.20.05 at 8:10 am

And Wilson might have been smart and sympathetic, but as a leader, he was a rank failure.

15

SamChevre 10.20.05 at 9:00 am

Please, not Wilson. His promotion of ethnic nationalism was possibly the worst idea that the US has EVER promoted.

16

crayz 10.20.05 at 10:39 am

Daniel – And Wilkerson’s point is that the other 150 years gives ample time to royally screw up the country and the world if there aren’t checks on the power of the executive and a transparency and inclusiveness in the decision making process

Look at how much has been ruined in just five years of the current presidency. You can’t count on genius

17

Martin James 10.20.05 at 1:49 pm

One major point of the speech is that the State department, the NSC, the legislative branch and the rest of the bureaucracy should be counterweight to the DOD and military-industrial complex.

He makes the point that the cold war helped to make policy important above just arms production.

If you assume that the purpose of the military-industrial complex is to sell defense products and services, the end of the cold war was a challenge and an opportunity. The challenge to keep sales high and the opportunity was less “adult supervision” from the fear of conflict with the USSR.

The NSC staff has been a pretty small in-bred group over the years with a tension between DOD and State. A former DOD Secretary as VP was a two-fer for the defense people.

The bottom line is that despite the wasted money and lives, there hasn’t been anything to replace the “cold war fear” that gave power to policy makers instead of arms makers.

The bad news is that this means things have to get a lot worse before they would get better.

18

Michael 10.20.05 at 1:59 pm

And this jackass is just now speaking out? Having stayed on the inside for four years, with his trap shut, right through the election that re-installed this dangerous “cabal”? And all the time “loyal soldier” Colin’s loyal retainer—that’s Colin Powell, whose loyalty pretty much begins and ends with his own ass. Colin Powell, whom the good colonel aided and abetted in his attempt to bamboozle the world about Iraqi WMDs in front of the Security Council.

He was on the inside while they slimed Joe Wilson, and Richard Clarke, and said nothing. Screw him.

19

dearieme 10.20.05 at 5:07 pm

“George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Monroe, Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt, and (maybe) JFK”: given the quasi-religous veneration that you guys show for your founders, I wouldn’t dare criticise some of these names. Nor would I choose to criticise the mention of Lincoln, nor even Teddy. But WW and FDR seem to me to be “great” mainly in the sense of doing great harm, and the mention of JFK is just risible. What in heaven’s name did he ever do that could put him in contention?

20

IJ 10.21.05 at 6:19 am

Now then, what are the lessons for the UK?

A clue comes from the speech invited by the New America Foundation: “we need a system of checks and balances and institutional fabric that can withstand anybody, or at least nearly so.”

It seems that Wall Street and the private sector generally are taking issue with key foreign policy decisions.

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