The Blog

Bush v. Powell

Colin Powell wants a war on poverty. The president must go further. Bin Laden is just the first step: the Taliban, Syria, and Iraq must each be dealt with in turn. It's no time to go wobbly.

12:00 AM, Sep 24, 2001 • By WILLIAM KRISTOL
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Since his speech to Congress last Thursday, virtually every major political figure has gone out of his way to support the president. Except for his secretary of state. On the Sunday talk shows, Colin Powell revised or modified many of his boss's remarks.

The president devoted a good chunk of his speech to an indictment of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan: "In Afghanistan we see al Qaeda's vision for the world. Afghanistan's people have been brutalized . . . we condemn the Taliban regime." Further: "By aiding and abetting murder the Taliban regime is committing murder."

Bush then made six demands of the Taliban regime, demands "not open to negotiation or discussion." "The Taliban must act and act immediately. They will hand over the terrorists or they will share in their fate."

On Sunday, by contrast, the secretary of state drew a distinction between al Qaeda and the Taliban, and more or less dismissed concerns about the Taliban: "With respect to the nature of the regime in Afghanistan, that is not uppermost in our minds right now. . . . I'm not going to say that it has become one of the objectives of the United States government to either remove or put in place a different regime." Powell expressed the hope that the Taliban would "come to its senses" and send Osama bin Laden out of the country. But after that, presumably, murderous bygones would be bygones.

What's going on here? Powell is desperate to focus our effort on bin Laden's al Qaeda. Holding the Taliban responsible would raise questions about the role of governments in supporting terror, and might suggest a general policy of regime change where possible. Powell is hostile to any such policy, in part because such a policy might require a broader military engagement.

The president seemed to warn us Thursday night that war was all but inevitable. He had a message for our military: "Be ready." He said that he had "called the armed forces to alert, and there is a reason. The hour is coming when America will act, and you will make us proud."

On Sunday the secretary of state was considerably less bellicose: "Well, let's not assume there will be a large-scale war. I don't know that we should even consider a large-scale war of the conventional sort."

One might say that Powell's remarks simply reflect the natural perspective of a secretary of state. But of course Powell had the same distaste for large-scale wars in 1990. Then, in the run-up to Desert Storm, Powell worried, in accord with his Powell Doctrine, that the American people were not united for war behind the first President Bush (as they were not). Powell did his best to persuade President Bush not to wage that war against Saddam.

Now the American people are united, but the Powell doctrine has gone global. Talk of war might fracture the global coalition that we have assembled. That coalition is key to this war against terror -- as long as it never becomes an actual war. Powell seems now to be as sensitive to global public opinion as he once was to what he took to be American public opinion.

Why shouldn't he be? After all, the attack was an attack on the world. As Powell said Sunday, "We have to keep remembering that the World Trade Center was that: the World Trade Center. . . . And so it was an attack against Americans, it was an attack against Muslims, it was an attack against Jews, it was an attack against Africa and Asia and Europe, all parts of the world. It was the World Trade Center, and they knew what they were doing."

Contrast the president Thursday night. He also said the attack on Sept. 11 was an assault against freedom and civilization. But primarily it was an attack on America, "a country awakened to danger and called to defend freedom." The president did ask other nations to join us. But he made clear that American honor required first and foremost an American response to this "wound to our country:" "I will not yield, I will not rest, I will not relent in waging this struggle for freedom and security for the American people."

In this struggle, according to the president, nations will either be with us or against us, depending on their stance toward terrorism. When Secretary Powell was asked Sunday about Yasser Arafat's Palestinian Authority, he acknowledged its links with some terrorist organizations. But his recommendation for dealing with this terrorist-implicated organization was that it "get the violence down" so that Israel would, under U.S. pressure, rejoin "peace" talks with it. So much for every nation having to decide "from this day forward," as the president suggested, to cut off all links to terrorism or be regarded by the United States as a hostile regime.

Eleven years ago, then-President Bush overrode Powell's resistance to fighting Saddam. Bush was vindicated in doing so. Will the current President Bush follow Powell's lead? Or will Bush lead and demand that Powell follow?

William Kristol is editor of the Weekly Standard.