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Et Tu, Mel Laird?

by Michael Winship

Scowcroft Joins Conservatives Attacking Neo-Cons, Cheney

Many years ago, at the height -- or depth -- of our snarl in the jungle miasma known as Vietnam and the insurgent Democratic candidacies of Gene McCarthy and Bobby Kennedy, a popular political cartoon depicted President Lyndon Johnson sitting at his desk wearing a soggy hat and mackintosh.

A downpour was deluging the Oval Office interior. As the water rose around him, a morose LBJ sighed, "Into each life some rain must fall." Shortly after, Johnson announced he wouldn't seek re-election.

On Friday, the Washington Post's editorial page featured a cartoon that showed a tidal wave labeled "The Perfect Storm" barreling down on the White House. Katrina, energy prices, the Iraq War, the Frist subpoena, Delay indictment, Harriet Miers and the Fitzgerald investigation -- all were parts of the tsunami. The president responds, "I think I'll go mountain bike riding."

Possible moral: when waterlogged metaphors dominate the national dialogue, start to bail.

Historically, the rule of thumb has been that to salvage his reputation a second-term president, frustrated by difficulties on the domestic front, turns to international accomplishments to establish his legacy. Hence, Nixon's efforts to normalize relations with China, Reagan's pas de deux with Soviet President Gorbachev, Clinton in Kosovo and northern Ireland; his failed, last ditch attempt at peace between Israel and the Palestinians.

Our current president's overseas legacy may be dicey, in part because, in the words of one critic, he is "not versed in international relations and not too much interested."

And not just any critic. Those were the words of retired Air Force Colonel Lawrence Wilkerson, who was Colin Powell's right hand guy at the State Department. The former chief of staff came out with barrels blazing last week during a speech at the New America Foundation. Our foreign policy especially, he said, has been seized by "a cabal between the vice president of the United States, Richard Cheney, and the secretary of defense, Donald Rumsfeld, on critical issues."

As a result, "We have courted disaster in Iraq, in North Korea, in Iran, and generally with regard to domestic crises like Katrina... 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."

Wow. Don't sugarcoat it, Larry.

What's so interesting about Wilkerson's remarks is not just their vehemence but the increasing frequency with which other foreign policy officials from past Republican administrations are going public, too.

In this week's New Yorker, Brent Scowcroft, national security advisor to the president's father, says to reporter Jeffrey Goldberg, "How do the neo-cons bring democracy to Iraq? You invade, you threaten and pressure, you evangelize. This was said to be part of the war on terrorism, but Iraq feeds terrorism."

Scowcroft adds, "I don't think in any reasonable time frame the objective of democratizing the Middle East can be successful. If you can do it, fine, but I don't think you can, and in the process of trying to do it you can make the Middle East a lot worse."

Although not on this scale, Wilkerson and Scowcroft have been critical of the administration before -- Wilkerson in a profile of Powell in GQ Magazine, Scowcroft in a somewhat notorious Wall Street Journal op-ed before the Iraqi war. The surprising addition to the chorus is Melvin Laird, Richard Nixon's bullet-headed Defense Secretary.

He supports the objectives of the invasion and occupation of Iraq but says of the president, in the November/December issue of Foreign Affairs, "His west Texas cowboy approach -- shoot first and answer questions later, or do the job first and let the results speak for themselves -- is not working...

"Recent polls showing a waning of support for the war are a sign to the president that he needs to level with the American people. When troops are dying, the commander-in-chief cannot be coy, vague, or secretive... Americans will not be lied to, and they will not tolerate secrets nor be sidelined in a war debate. As with the Vietnam War, if necessary they will take to the streets to be heard."

All three agree that, in Laird's words, "We have fallen into a pattern of neglecting our treaty alliances, such as NATO, and endangering the aid we can give our allies by throwing our resources into fights that our allies refuse to join."

Characteristically, in his speech, Wilkerson was more blunt. "If you're unilaterally declaring Kyoto dead, if you're declaring the Geneva Conventions not operative, if you're doing a host of things that the world doesn't agree with you on and you're doing it blatantly and in their face, without grace, then you've got to pay the consequences."

Piling on when the president's down? Possibly. Axes to grind? Sure. But when enough of your alleged friends -- or your dad's friends -- tell you there's a problem, chances are, there's a problem. Our 41st president told the New Yorker's Goldberg that Scowcroft is "not a blowhard... [he's] someone I can depend on to tell me what I need to know and not just what I want to hear."

Will the 43rd president listen -- or can't he hear above the sound of the storm?

© 2005 Messenger Post Newspapers

Michael Winship, Writers Guild of America Award winner and former writer with Bill Moyers, writes this weekly column for the Messenger Post Newspapers in upstate New York

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Albion Monitor October 24, 2005 (

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