The Magazine

Bum Advice

From the April 14, 2003 issue: Who's giving the president good counsel?

Apr 14, 2003, Vol. 8, No. 30 • By FRED BARNES, FOR THE EDITORS
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A GROUP identified as administration officials, anxious advisers of President Bush, former Republican officeholders, and party leaders told the Washington Post early last week that the president has been getting "bum advice" from his top advisers on the war with Iraq. The group, whose members include "some close to" Secretary of State Colin Powell, was described as poised to intervene with Bush through his father, the elder President Bush. Their complaint was that the war is bogged down because too few ground troops were deployed in Iraq and Bush's war advisers may lead the president to alienate America's allies in postwar diplomacy.

Bum advice? On the day the story appeared, American troops had breezed through southern Iraq and were getting ready for a final assault on Baghdad. Meanwhile, Powell, the hero of the rump group, was visiting Turkey in hopes of repairing a Turkish-American relationship shattered by the Turks' unexpected refusal to permit American troops to advance on Iraq from Turkish soil.

The juxtaposition of a successful war effort and failed diplomacy touches directly on the question of who's been giving Bush good advice and whose advice has been, well, bum. An examination of prewar diplomacy, the war itself, and what may happen after the war provides an unequivocal answer.

First, the Powell side. At a now-legendary dinner with the president last August, Powell recommended the Iraq issue be taken to the United Nations. Others, such as British prime minister Tony Blair, offered the same advice, and Bush was amenable. What followed was one of the most maladroit and embarrassing episodes in the history of American diplomacy, an episode that elevated France and its anti-American agenda in the eyes of the world.

Powell and the State Department were credited with winning unanimous approval of U.N. Resolution 1441, which required Iraq to disarm or face "serious consequences." But the Powell forces didn't have a clue what France, Russia, China, and Kofi Annan were up to. When the time came to impose consequences, they balked and vowed to block any new resolution that even hinted at an endorsement of war against Iraq. Then, as the United States and Britain prepared for war, Annan claimed military action would violate the U.N. charter. Finally, it was left to John Kerry, the shifty and ambitious Democratic senator, to assert Bush had broken trust with the U.N.

The bad advice and ingenuous diplomacy was followed by worse in Turkey. A new government led by a Muslim party was believed to be willing to welcome American soldiers. But the government's grip was shaky; it lost the parliamentary vote on U.S. troops and couldn't muster the political strength to overturn the defeat. American troops and equipment were required to relocate to Kuwait, and the plan for a strong northern front against Saddam Hussein had to be abandoned. Powell, by the way, never traveled to Turkey to lobby the government personally.

Now turn to the triumvirate who stand accused of filling Bush's ear with bad ideas--Vice President Dick Cheney, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, and his deputy Paul Wolfowitz. Cheney was the chief skeptic of the U.N. detour and the implementation of a new U.N. arms inspections regime in Iraq. He's been vindicated by events. Rumsfeld, working with the military brass, came up with a war plan that used far fewer soldiers than Desert Storm did in 1991. When the ground forces met sporadic resistance from Iraqi irregulars, some armchair generals and media critics panicked. But the attacks proved militarily insignificant, and army and Marine divisions quickly destroyed large elements of the supposedly "elite" Iraqi Republican Guards. Rumsfeld was vindicated.

So the verdict is clear on whose advice was bum and whose wasn't. The next question is: Whom should the president pay attention to now? That answer is clear as well. The State Department would have Bush turn over the administration of free Iraq to the U.N., to give it more legitimacy in the Arab world and to reconcile the United States with dissident allies. (Powell himself appears ambivalent on the issue.) This would give authority to an agency that vigorously opposed the war and whose bureaucracy has never successfully fostered a democracy or maintained peace, and also bring into the postwar picture France and Russia, two countries desperate to redeem their commercial ties to Saddam. Chances are, Bush has already figured out this is bum advice.

Cheney, Rumsfeld, and Wolfowitz have a different idea: Let the U.S. military bring order to Iraq while an interim government of Iraqis plants the seeds of democracy. The U.N.? It would best be used to facilitate humanitarian aid and encourage nations that didn't join the coalition against Saddam to provide assistance. Sounds like good advice.

--Fred Barnes, for the Editors