WHEN LAURENT MURAWIEC listed the ways Saudi royals have supported terrorists, Secretary of State Colin Powell was quick to assure the Saudi foreign minister that the comments did not reflect administration policy. Never mind that Murawiec, a RAND analyst, had no affiliation with the Bush administration. Never mind that he had shared his views in a private briefing, not at Powell's State Department, but at the Pentagon, for an informal advisory board. State Department spokesman Phil Reeker told the press Powell had assured the Saudis that Murawiec's remarks were merely "the musings of a private individual."
Perhaps because this move successfully defused what could have been an awkward diplomatic situation, the State Department tried it again last week. After retired General Anthony Zinni publicly ripped the president's policy of "regime change" in Iraq, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher told reporters, "I don't have any particular comment on what any private individual has had to say on this topic," adding later, "Zinni is a private citizen, he can say what he wants."
It's a harder sell this time around because Zinni works directly for Powell. Last October, he was named "senior adviser" to the secretary of state, enlisted to work without pay on issues in the Middle East. Since then, he has played a major role in crafting and implementing U.S. policy in the region, making several high profile trips and representing the U.S. government with foreign leaders, though Boucher correctly points out that Zinni's public role has diminished along with the prospects for peace between the Israelis and Palestinians.
Boucher's task of distancing Powell from the comments of his own senior adviser is impossible, for unlike in the Murawiec case, neither Powell nor Boucher has said anything to contradict the substance of Zinni's remarks. Zinni's patronizing public outburst--an indirect challenge to the leadership of the president and vice president--should have gotten him fired. Powell, however, won't even disavow it. He won't because he can't--he largely shares Zinni's views, and has been an active participant in the not-so-behind-the-scenes campaign to undermine the administration's decision to remove Saddam Hussein.
Zinni's comments came after an otherwise unremarkable speech on the Middle East to the Economic Club of Florida, when the general was asked about the Bush administration's policy toward Saddam. His five-minute response took the form of a rambling list of nearly every argument against regime change in Iraq:
"What are your priorities in the region? That's the first issue. The peace process in my mind has to be a higher priority, winning the war on terrorism has to be a higher priority. More directly, the situation in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Central Asia has to be resolved, making sure al Qaeda can't rise again from the ashes, the Taliban cannot come back, the warlords can't gain control over Kabul and Karzai and destroy everything that has happened so far. Our relationships in the region are in major disrepair, not to the point where we can't fix 'em, but we need to quit makin' enemies out of people we don't need to make enemies out of, and we need to fix those relationships. There's a deep chasm that's growing between that part of the world and our part of the world, and it's strange, about a month after 9/11 they were sympathetic and now? How did it happen over the last year, and we need to look at that, that is a higher priority. The country that started all of this, Iran, is about to turn around 180 degrees. . . . And I can give you many, many more before you get down to Saddam and Iraq. . . . He'll drag Israel into the war. The mood on the street is very hostile at this moment. It is the wrong time. You could create a backlash to regimes that have been friendly to us. You could create a sense of anti-Arab, anti-Islamic feelings from the West. They could misinterpret the attack. We could end up with collateral damage. You could inherit the country of Iraq, if you want to do it. If our economy is so great that you're willing to put billions of dollars into reforming Iraq. If you want to put soldiers that are already stretched so thin all around the world and add them into a security force there forever, like we see in places like the Sinai. . . . You're going to have to tell me the threat is there, right now. That it's that immediate that it takes a priority over all those things that I just mentioned. And I just hit the tops of the waves there."
Needless to say, if Zinni had been, as Boucher suggested, merely a "private citizen," no one would have objected to his public diatribe against administration policy. Neither would anyone have objected if Zinni had argued against the policy in private. But it should be equally obvious that it is entirely inappropriate for him to publicly reject the president's policy while serving the administration.
Zinni himself seemed to concede the point later in his response: "Well, in fairness to President Bush, since I work for him (laughter), I don't get paid though, so it's okay, in fairness to President Bush, President Bush is--he invited the debate."
Beyond the matter of appropriateness, though, there is the issue of substance--especially the suggestion that civilians have no business crafting military policy (though judging from Zinni's blast, it's fine for generals to pronounce on geopolitics). "If you ask me my opinion," Zinni said, "General Scowcroft, General Powell, General Schwarzkopf, General Zinni--we all see this the same way. It might be interesting to wonder that all the generals see this the same way, and all those that never fired a shot in anger are really hell-bent to go to war."
This line of reasoning seems to be gaining currency among those opposed to intervention. Sen. Chuck Hagel, a Vietnam veteran, suggested recently that Pentagon adviser Richard Perle might "like to be in the first wave of those who go into Baghdad." And Richard Armitage, Powell's number two at the State Department, expressed similar sentiments late last month when an Australian journalist asked him about the divide between hawks and "relative doves" in the administration. Said Armitage: "Doesn't it tell you something that the two relative doves [Armitage and Powell], to use your term, are the two that have seen combat?"
This argument flips the conventional wisdom, that "hawks"--both inside and outside the administration--are the ones seeking to squelch debate on Iraq. But it is largely a media-driven fantasy that the hawks are so irrationally predisposed to war that they just don't have time to discuss the wisdom of their policy prescriptions. Like most journalistic generalizations, this oversimplifies to the point of caricature.
Those who favor Saddam's removal have been patiently making their case for years. Many of the same people now pressing President Bush to move against Iraq similarly urged President Clinton to get serious about implementing his own official policy of regime change in Iraq.
For that matter, not every battle-hardened participant in the foreign policy process agrees with Zinni's comments implying that those who have worn the uniform are necessarily the best judge of war and peace. Administration officials who favor a war with Iraq say they're reluctant to get involved in a "your generals versus my generals" contest. But they point to prominent combat veterans such as Alexander Haig, Bob Kerrey, Wayne Downing, and Tom McInerney who support military intervention. Zinni's comments "are a direct contradiction of Clemenceau's statement that 'war is too important to be left to the generals,'" says Senator John McCain, veteran of the Hanoi Hilton. "If civilians can't contribute to the debate, then Lincoln, Roosevelt, Reagan--they all would have been excluded from sharing their views."
General Zinni "has a right to give his views," McCain continues, "and I respect those views even though I don't agree with them. But to dismiss opposing views just because some of those who hold them haven't served, frankly, that just should never be a part of the debate." Why? "It's a way that people use to close off debate when they may be losing it. And they're losing this one."
Stephen F. Hayes is a staff writer at The Weekly Standard.