An Open Letter to Colin Powell
Dear Secretary Powell:
Your country needs you. No doubt you’ve heard that call before, perhaps long ago when you first joined the ROTC. But it has never before rung as true as it does today.
President Bush is in way over his head. His emotional IQ may make him a genius, but his analytical IQ---the type that gets things done---is inadequate. He can’t win the war in Iraq and he can’t see how to withdraw. He can’t balance the budget. He can’t protect us from a simple storm---something we Americans have always done superbly. He won’t even cut his vacation short to attend to vital business. How can he win the War on Terrorists, avert a global avian flu pandemic, reduce global warming (which may be the cause of stronger hurricanes), or make our schools and industries competitive again? His two chief advisors are vain, tired old men out of ideas and in deep water that long ago swamped their competence.
As we Americans look past the next three awful lame-duck years, our only hope for good leadership is you. Look at the Democrats first. John Kerry never had any ideas, is obsessed with revenge against Bush, and is finished as a national figure. Howard Dean is a polemical fund raiser, not a leader. John Edwards is a good, honest trial lawyer, with no executive experience, still learning about politics and government. Hillary Clinton has no ideas or program beyond her ambition to be the first female President. Barack Obama, while promising, is far too young and inexperienced. Bill Richardson seems sensible, but we’ve had two recent presidents who were governors with no national experience. It seems time for someone who has some.
Now look at the Republican side. Are things much better there? Bill Frist is Hillary’s counterpart: all ambition, no substance. Chuck Hagel has little to recommend him but his well-justified skepticism of the Bush Administration’s war planning. John McCain would be a credible candidate, but he also lacks executive experience. Not a one ever served in the Cabinet.
You’ve got three decades of experience leading the military---the only institution in our society that everyone agrees still works. The military is now in great demand. It fights our wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. It rescues our people and their property after disasters like Katrina and Rita. It saves lives in foreign disasters like the Sumatran tsunami and the earthquake in Kashmir, earning us invaluable international good will. Now the President wants it to protect us against an avian flu pandemic. The military bears all these burdens because it is one of the few institutions of government that we can still rely on to get things done.
You worked in the military for thirty years, rising to the highest level. You’ve got contacts and skills none of the wannabes can dream of. You know how to reach down inside a huge bureaucracy and find and promote the best and the brightest. (I’ve watched your appointments in the State Department, and, so far as I can tell, there wasn’t a Michael Brown or Tommy Franks among them.) You know how to pick doers and winners, and you’re not afraid to work with people who might be smarter than yourself. With you in the White House we could count on competent and capable leadership that knows what it is doing.
Most of our presidential wannabes are firmly mired in the national mud-wrestling contest that passes for the United States Congress. You stand above the fray. You have an innate knack for diplomacy. With the possible exception of John McCain, you may be the only figure of national stature who can say the word “bipartisan” and not evoke peals of derision. Your country needs your soft voice and unbiased common sense.
Five years ago, you could bow out, pleading inexperience. Then you could credibly say you were “just” a soldier. But that seems a lifetime ago. We may need a soldier now. And you’ve served four years in the Cabinet, as Secretary of State. That gives you four years more of national executive experience than any of the wannabes. (That’s two-thirds the length of George Bush’s entire experience in elective office when he entered the White House!) You’ve met the world’s leaders and villains face to face, you know them, and you’ve worked with them.
We saw you as a diplomat. We saw you struggle to achieve success and almost make it, only to have the rug pulled out from under you, time after time, by the President or your rivals in the Administration. Still you achieved minor successes, loyally supporting mistaken policies in which you did not believe and against which you had rightly cautioned. Can anyone doubt what diplomatic miracles you might perform in the service of your own good policies?
On the most important international issues of the day, you were right all along. You pronounced the Powell Doctrine. Avoid foreign military adventures, you advised, but if you go, take overwhelming force and a clear exit strategy. If you had been in the White House, we might not have invaded Iraq. If you had decided to go, you would have taken 300,000 troops, stopped the looting, picked up all that loose ordnance, and crushed the insurgency before it began. We’d have rebuilt Iraq’s infrastructure, established a stable government, and been on our way home long ago.
You wanted to lean a bit on Ariel Sharon to make peace. You were undermined at home, but you were right. Sharon’s short-sighted policies have only postponed another inevitable explosion, despite Arafat’s death. Some day soon, free people everywhere will begin to compare his West Bank Wall with the now-vanished Berlin Wall, and they won’t like the comparison. Even now, Muslims worldwide hate us for what they see as our partiality.
Maybe you’d rather be right than President, but now you can be both. There is no one on the scene with anything close to your credentials, your consistent record of correct calls on difficult issues, or your personal skill. If it were simply a matter of resumes, no one would even bother to interview the other candidates. Democrats and independents will vote for you in droves.
Of course, you’ve got to win the Republican nomination first. But there are benefits there, too. Once upon a time, the word “conservative” had a good and noble meaning. It didn’t mean radical reformer. It didn’t mean polemical divider. It didn’t mean using religion as a club to beat up gays, judges, and pro-choice women. It didn’t mean hobbling leading-edge medical research. And it certainly didn’t mean mounting ambitious foreign military adventures, far less with too few troops to do the job.
Instead, the word “conservative” once stood for the old, solid American virtues. It meant common sense, caution, humility, reason, thrift, selfless public service, and fiscal responsibility. It meant conserving the good that you have, in troops, in other personnel, in institutions, in the environment, in money and in virtue. You can restore that meaning, for you embody all those qualities. And I have to believe there are lots of Republicans who still value them, else we are lost.
There are few times in our nation’s history when we’ve needed good leadership more than today. We had Washington for our Revolution, Lincoln for the Civil War, and FDR for the Big One. Can anyone seriously believe that the President is in the same league, or that any of the wannabes measures up? Next to you, there is only a parade of midgets.
The future does not look rosy. Iraq may be sliding into civil war. Natural disasters are increasing in numbers and severity worldwide, and global warming may be partly responsible. An avian flu pandemic threatens. The American consumer and Chinese industry, which have kept the recession from becoming a worldwide depression, are running out of steam. If the global economy somehow picks up, there will be shortages of oil and other commodities and massive inflation. Our national energy policy is a national disgrace. Our national savings rate is negative, and our twin deficits in payments and the budget are spiraling out of control. Pretty soon China and Japan will own most of our debt, and they may decide to foreclose. North Korea has nuclear weapons, and Iran threatens to get them. And Al Qaeda is metastasizing worldwide, using Iraq as a training camp and a seemingly inexhaustible source of explosives.
The next presidential term will be no time for on-the-job training of a national leader. The survival of our nation---or at least one of our major cities---may depend on having a President “ready to roll” right after the inauguration. (There is considerable evidence that President Bush’s own on-the-job training was a contributing factor in failing to avert September 11.) None of our wannabes is prepared to do so or has anything like your experience or skill.
So please, please take the plunge now. Announce your candidacy early. Give us some hope for experienced good leadership at least around the corner. You’ve already served and sacrificed more than anyone could ask. You could retire and still deserve the thanks of a grateful nation. But we have nowhere else to turn, and you have never shrunk from a challenge.
If you announce now, the sorry list of wannabes will cull itself, and our national debates will grow less raucous and more sensible. Even from the sidelines, you will be able to decrease the heat, increase the light, and begin to solve problems. The nation will follow you because you are the best we’ve got. So please say those magic words, “I volunteer,” just as you did so long ago. And please say them soon.