The Magazine

Reality Check

From the October 13, 2003 issue: There is disarray in George W. Bush's administration.

Oct 13, 2003, Vol. 9, No. 05 • By WILLIAM KRISTOL
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REALITIES are sometimes unpleasant. Presidents are elected to confront such realities, and to deal with them. Evading them doesn't work. Pundits can afford to indulge in wishful thinking. Partisans can choose to preoccupy themselves with rock-throwing and blame-casting. But presidents have to govern. They have to deal with difficult realities--even if disingenuous liberals are capitalizing on them, and Democrats are distorting them.

Perhaps the biggest such reality for President Bush is the disarray within his administration. That disarray has been highlighted by reactions to the leak in mid-July of the name of an undercover CIA employee--the wife of an administration critic--to columnist Robert Novak.

On July 6, retired ambassador Joseph Wilson took to the pages of the New York Times and accused the Bush administration of having manipulated intelligence on Iraq's nuclear threat and thus of having gone to war "under false pretenses." A critic of the administration's Iraq policy, Wilson reported in his op-ed that he had traveled to Niger at the request of the CIA in early 2002 to investigate reports of Iraqi attempts to purchase uranium there. By Wilson's (no doubt exaggerated and self-important) estimation, he had debunked such reports but was ignored by a White House that continued to cite them. Novak offered an explanation for why the outspoken Wilson had been chosen for the CIA mission: "Two senior administration officials told me his wife suggested sending Wilson to Niger." Novak named Mrs. Wilson, describing her as a CIA "operative on weapons of mass destruction."

Revealing the identity of covert CIA agents is a crime under certain circumstances. But given the strict stipulations of the relevant statute, it seems unlikely that the Justice Department investigation will ever lead to a successful prosecution of the leaker or leakers. That doesn't make the political reality or the moral responsibility any less urgent. Surely the president has, as the Washington Times suggested last week, taken "too passive a stance" toward this misdeed by one or more of his employees. Surely he should do his utmost to restore the White House's reputation for honor and integrity by calling together the dozens of more-or-less "senior" administration officials and asking whoever spoke with Novak to come forward and explain themselves. Presumably the relevant officials--absent some remarkable explanation that's hard to conceive--should be fired, and their names given to the Justice Department. The president might also want to call Mrs. Wilson, who is after all a government official serving her country, and apologize for the damage done to her by his subordinate's action.

The leak controversy has revealed an administration at war with itself, a war intensified by the difficult aftermath of the war in Iraq. The situation there seems to be better than you would think if you read only the New York Times and the Washington Post, but worrying nonetheless. On Thursday, the commander of U.S. ground forces in Iraq, Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, acknowledged that the enemy had succeeded in organizing itself in recent weeks to become "a little bit more lethal, a little bit more complex, a little bit more sophisticated, and, in some cases, a little bit more tenacious." With its submission of the $87 billion package to Congress, the administration has begun to come to grips with the problem, and seems committed to doing what needs to be done. But reports suggest that the civilian efforts on the ground in Iraq remain spotty and that the military is stretched very thin. And even more striking, as debate has raged on its $87 billion request, the administration has been virtually invisible in making its case to Congress or to the American people.

One reason for this is that the civil war in the Bush administration has become crippling. The CIA is in open revolt against the White House. The State Department and the Defense Department aren't working together at all. We are way beyond "fruitful tension" and all the other normal excuses for bureaucratic conflict. This is a situation that only the president can fix. Perhaps a serious talk with Messrs. Tenet, Powell, and Rumsfeld can do the trick, followed by strengthening the National Security Council's role in resolving intra-administration disputes. Perhaps a head or two has to roll. But the present condition is debilitating, and, given the challenges facing us in postwar Iraq, in Iran, and in North Korea, it is irresponsible to let it fester.

To govern is to choose. Only one man can make the choices necessary to get the administration back on course. President Bush has problems with his White House, his administration's execution of his policy, and its internal decision-making ability. He should fix them sooner rather than later. Time is not on his side.

--William Kristol