DURING LAST YEAR'S PRESIDENTIAL CAMPAIGN, we were assured that George W. Bush's foreign policy team would be far superior in skill and experience to the much derided Clintonites. When Bush came to power, the "adults" would be in charge. Four months into the Bush presidency, the "adults" may want to consider drafting a letter of apology to Madeleine Albright, Sandy Berger, and William Cohen.
Last week's flip-flop on the question of military-to-military exchanges with China was an especially striking example of the new team's fumbling, and also of its willingness to hang loyal subordinates out to dry. On Monday, secretary of defense Donald Rumsfeld's adviser and righthand man Chris Williams sent a memorandum to the Joint Chiefs of Staff ordering the suspension of all contacts between the U.S. and Chinese militaries. The decision was hardly a bolt from the blue. Rumsfeld's unhappiness with the military exchange program -- in which we share a great deal of information with them while they share nothing with us -- was well-known. Earlier this year Rumsfeld had ordered a review to determine whether the program should be suspended, and after the appalling behavior of the Chinese military during the EP-3 hostage crisis, he decided to take the final step as a clear and appropriate expression of American displeasure.
But when word of the decision became public on Wednesday, national security adviser Condoleezza Rice went ballistic. Rumsfeld's entirely unsurprising decision, we are told, caught her entirely by surprise. The White House immediately repudiated Rumsfeld, insisting that contacts with the Chinese would continue, though on a case-by-case basis.
It was bad enough that the White House thus inflicted upon Rumsfeld a second public humiliation in less than three months. (The first was when the White House announced in early February that there would be no immediate effort to increase defense spending, a decision that contradicted what Rumsfeld had just told Congress.) Even more inexcusable was the White House's decision, with Rumsfeld's evident approval, to make Chris Williams the fall guy. Administration officials put out word that Williams had blown it. He had "misinterpreted" and "misunderstood" Rumsfeld's order.
This is ludicrous. There is not the smallest chance that Chris Williams could have so badly misunderstood his boss. Everyone who has ever worked with Williams knows that he is careful, disciplined, and loyal. What's more, Williams has been working the China issue for more than a decade, most recently as Trent Lott's foreign policy adviser and before that as deputy staff director on the Senate Intelligence Committee. As much as any policymaker in Washington, Williams would understand the vast difference between an order to suspend contacts with the Chinese military and an order to review contacts "on a case-by-case basis," which administration spokesmen now claim was Rumsfeld's intention.
The appalling implication that Williams is an idiot flies in the face of other known facts. Early last week, Pentagon officials were talking to reporters about the suspension order, not only verifying its existence but also providing the rationale behind it. On Tuesday, the new assistant secretary of state for East Asia, James Kelly, testified to Congress, "We're not going to conduct business as usual after our servicemen and women were detained for 11 days in China." On Wednesday, senator John Warner told reporters he had discussed the suspension with Rumsfeld personally and had heartily endorsed the defense secretary's decision. After that statement, the White House pounced on Warner, who then obediently explained that he had misspoken. "If there is an error," Warner told reporters on Thursday, "it is mine, and I accept it." Now that's loyalty -- accepting blame for a mistake one did not in fact make.
We wonder if Donald Rumsfeld or anyone else in the Bush administration will accept responsibility for the mistake they did make. One brave and "well-placed" Defense Department official -- "speaking on condition of anonymity because of the delicacy of the issue" -- did confirm to the Los Angeles Times on Friday that "Rumsfeld had intended to break off all contacts between the two militaries." Still, as this magazine goes to press, Rumsfeld remains silent -- while his loyal aide is left twisting slowly in the wind.