Benching the Star Quarterback
A spate of revelations about the inner workings of the Bush Administration has clarified the president’s modus operandi. He is not really commander in chief, but coach and cheerleader in chief. He decides what games to play, as in Afghanistan and Iraq. He sets broad goals, like democratizing Iraq, that are often utopian and unrealistic. Then he cheers his players on, motivating them with pats on the back and accolades like “Great Job!”
Unfortunately for us, the president’s track record in fielding the best players is not very good. For natural disasters like Katrina, he chose Michael Brown. For the War in Iraq, he retained Donald Rumsfeld long after Rumsfeld conclusively demonstrated his incompetence in running that type of war. Now even the president and the rest of his team acknowledge how poor these choices were.
When a president serves as coach and is as uninvolved in details and intellectually incurious as this one, his choice of players is absolutely critical. Yet in replacing Rumsfeld, President Bush left our star quarterback on the bench.
I do not mean to disparage Robert M. Gates, the president’s choice for Secretary of Defense. Gates has a good record, enjoys general respect, and may even do a good job. But is he the best man for the job?
The new SecDef will have two tasks, each critical to our security and collective future. First, he will have the to repair the immense damage that Rumsfeld has done to the Pentagon, our top military leadership, and morale among our generals. Second, he will have to make sober, mature and expert judgments not only on how best to salvage what remains of our mission in Iraq, but also on whether and how to use military force in Iran, North Korea, and perhaps the area where Bin Laden and Zawahiri are hiding. Our collective security and our nation’s future will depend on his good judgment on matters of military expertise.
Only a single individual in our vast nation has the contacts, experience, expertise, and demonstrated good judgment for both of these vital tasks. That person is Colin Powell.
Let’s begin with personnel. Rumsfeld destroyed our top military leadership, turning a meritocracy into a sycophancy. He made kowtowing to his bullying style the chief criterion for promotion and retention. He eased out excellent generals who disagreed with him, like Shinseki and Zinni. To avoid getting too close to him, several top military leaders put their heads down and refused promotion. Others accepted promotion but left their doubts, scruples and expert judgment behind.
Therefore the first order of business, as many pundits have recognized, is to “clear the E-Ring of the Pentagon,” i.e., to replace and reorganize top civilian and military brass. The new SecDef must begin to restore the meritocracy that our military worked so hard to rebuild after Vietnam.
Is Gates the best man for this task? His intelligence credentials are sterling. He served as an intelligence professional for 27 years, becoming the only person ever to rise from entry level to director of the CIA. Yet apart from three years in the Air Force during the Vietnam War, he has no military experience. He left government service altogether thirteen years ago, in 1993.
In comparison, Powell served 35 years in the armed forces, rising to the highest position, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, which he held from 1989 to 1993. The personnel whom he helped put in place won Gulf I in record time and with an astounding minimum of casualties. After a civilian hiatus, Powell returned to government service as Secretary of State from 2001 to 2005.
In Powell’s day the Pentagon was no sycophancy. Powell’s autobiography, My American Journey, describes his screaming matches with General Schwarzkopf in the runup to and early stages of Gulf I. Those screaming matches helped make strategy and tactics better and saved lives. Gulf I became a textbook military operation—the most dramatic, stunning and casualty-free American victory since Teddy Roosevelt charged up San Juan Hill. Its aftermath saw our military at the height of its prestige since World War II.
Based on this comparison, who is better qualified to “clean house” at the Pentagon? Who has better and more relevant contacts? Who is better able to evaluate a person’s job performance and what military evaluations and commendations really mean? Powell has the contacts, the experience and the expertise to do the job well, quickly, and with minimal damage to military tradition and culture, which he lived and breathed for over a third of a century. Gates might be better at reforming military intelligence, but, if so, he should be working for Powell.
As for judgment, we know little of Gates’, for most of his judgment calls were and remain secret. We do, however, know a lot about Colin Powell’s judgment. On the most important calls of our time, history has proven Powell right.
Powell earned the nickname “reluctant warrior” during the runup to Gulf I. Initially, he opposed using military force to reverse Saddam’s invasion of Kuwait. Based on his experience in Vietnam, he developed the Powell Doctrine, which requires overwhelming force and a clear exit strategy.
Yet when war came, Powell’s advice proved exactly right. We took half a million troops, devastated Saddam’s army and destroyed his military potential. Powell wisely counseled not to invade Baghdad. Bush the Elder, a prudent man, took that advice. We emerged victorious with our alliance, honor and prestige intact and a record proportion of our troops safe and whole.
Hawks began carping as soon as the guns fell silent. They never stopped. They chafed at the decision not to take Baghdad and depose Saddam. Their smoldering frustration ultimately led to Bush the Younger’s decision to invade. Today, with the awful mess we have made in Iraq in clear hindsight, we can see that Powell was right and the hawks were wrong.
Powell’s good judgment did not fail after he took off his uniform. One of his least noticed and most important judgment calls was his response to the spy-plane crisis. In 2001, just months after Powell became Secretary of State, a Chinese hotshot pilot tried to scare off one of our spy planes. He came too close, collided with the spy plane, crashed and died. Our damaged spy plane managed to land safely, but in Chinese territory. The Chinese demanded an apology before allowing the plane and crew to return home.
After consulting with his China experts, Powell gave the apology and defused the crisis. He was obviously uncomfortable in the role of national apologist, and his apology didn’t sound very sincere. But the Chinese accepted it, and we averted a new cold war or worse. Imagine how much more complex our national life would be today if that incident had been allowed to poison our increasingly cooperative relationship with China.
As for the War in Iraq, Powell’s correct advice is well known. He advised not to invade. In words now famous, he told the president that he would “own” Iraq after an invasion. Powell invented the “Pottery Barn” rule: if you break it, you fix it. When the order to invade came, Powell at State affirmed the military’s advice: use massive force and be prepared for contingencies. The wisdom of his advice now cries out of the blood and havoc that grip Iraq. Every word of Powell’s advice was right, and we are suffering every day for ignoring it.
Powell’s judgment on the Middle East was equally acute. While Ariel Sharon was at the peak of his power and prestige, Powell wanted to lean on him to make peace, rather than passively approving Sharon’s most aggressive and draconian tactics. The probable consequence of Sharon’s high-handed approach was plain for all to see: a new explosion of violence in the region. It came last summer, in the form of the inconclusive war with Hezbollah. Now Israel has a weak and divided government and is unable to see a way forward, as its enemies gather and strengthen in every direction.
There was and is no guarantee of a peace in the Middle East. Powell’s approach might have failed, just as have so many other attempts to broker peace. But it is clear in retrospect that Powell was right: inappropriate reliance on military superiority alone is no better guarantor of Israel’s security than it is of our own.
Powell’s only significant lapse of judgment was his much-criticized speech at the U.N. There he lent his considerable prestige to the erroneous premise that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction. That was a serious gaffe, and one over which Powell himself has agonized. But it was not a decision to do anything. The decision to invade Iraq had already been made, and Powell was helping to carry it out, under direct orders from the president. If the administration had followed Powell's wise advice, there would have been no need for misstatements.
We judge soldiers by their actions, not their words. In deciding what to do,
Powell has an impeccable track record of sober and mature judgment. Whenever we followed his advice—in Gulf I and the spy-plane crisis—the outcome was good. When we ignored his advice—in uncritical support for Sharon and the War in Iraq—the result has been disaster. How many times must a man be right before they call him a leader?
There is one final reason why Powell is a better choice than Gates or anyone else for Secretary of Defense. From Vietnam to Iraq, heavy-handed and misguided civilian leadership has weakened, discredited and dispirited our military, straining the social contract between our troops and the people they protect. Troops who agree to risk their lives on command must have competent leadership, especially in a volunteer force. The best way to assure both good leadership and loyalty is to appoint leaders from their ranks. If troops have to die for a mistake, it is far better that the mistake be made by one of their own than by a political appointee of a discredited president, however well qualified.
With Powell, the likelihood of serious mistakes is small. His record suggests that he, as much as anyone on the national stage during the last decade, possesses good and reliable judgment in military and foreign affairs. Not only could he clean house and cheer the troops better than anyone else. His mature and prudent judgment would do much to correct the adventurism of the past six years, while rebuilding a capable, competent and inspired military force for future emergencies. Why leave our star quarterback on the bench?