There was only one thing truly astonishing about the revelation last week that Richard Armitage, Colin Powell’s deputy at the State Department during George W. Bush’s first term, was the source of Bob Novak’s first column about Iraq war critic Amb. Joe Wilson and his CIA agent wife, Valery Plame. That was the fact that Novak subsequently described the man who first “outed” Plame’s place of employment as “no partisan gunslinger.”
The truth is that Rich Armitage is the consummate partisan gunslinger. It’s just that his partisanship is not usually defined by his allegiance to the Republican Party and certainly not to its current standard-bearer, President Bush. Rather, more often than not, Armitage slings his gun – or, more accurately, wields his stiletto – in the other sense of a partisan: one who wages war from behind enemy lines.
During the first term, Colin Powell and Rich Armitage lost policy battle after battle to the President’s loyal subordinates. It fell to Armitage to try to overturn or undermine those policies Powell opposed, in the interagency process, through leaks to the press (whose appreciation has been reflected in generally kid-glove treatment of the revelation of his role in the Plame affair), via back-channels with foreign governments and, not least, through attacks on his bureaucratic rivals.
A prime example of such attacks was the Armitage-encouraged campaign against John Bolton, President Bush’s nominee to be U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. During their four years together in the Powell State Department, the Deputy Secretary made no secret of his hostility towards then-Under Secretary Bolton. He encouraged insubordination, bureaucratic end-runs and personal attacks against Mr. Bolton by individuals assigned to State’s powerful regional bureaus and its intelligence organization.
Some of those responsible for such behavior – like Armitage cronies Carl Ford and Tom Fingar – subsequently sought publicly to sabotage the Bolton nomination, engendering a Senate filibuster that was only ended when Mr. Bush gave his choice for the UN a recess appointment. It is to be hoped that the Foreign Relations Committee will rectify this travesty by voting this week to confirm the re-nominated Amb. Bolton, whose past year of service at the United Nations has forcefully demonstrated the baseless nature of the partisans’ attacks on this outstanding public servant.
Rich Armitage’s mean-spirited partisanship is especially evident in the fact that neither he, nor Mr. Powell nor their lawyer, then-State Department Legal Advisor William Taft IV, saw fit to inform the White House that Armitage was the source of the Novak leak. The reason, according to reporters Michael Isikoff and David Korn: Armitage did not want to give the White House a pretext for placing the blame where it belonged – with the disloyal denizens of the State Department’s seventh floor.
To be sure, Special Prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald was informed, in the hopes of minimizing the danger that the Deputy Secretary would be indicted and tried. But, in an act of real betrayal, the elected President who appointed Messrs. Powell, Armitage and Taft and his senior subordinates were kept in the dark – even as Fitzgerald’s inquiry subjected several of the latter, and the administration more generally, to relentless hectoring from Democrats and the media, career-imperiling grand jury appearances and dangerous distractions in time of war. Had the White House known the truth, the whole inquisition may have come to a screeching halt virtually at its outset.
Which brings us back to the point about the partisan at the center of this scandal. It was no accident that the people who came under most intense scrutiny thanks to Rich Armitage’s disloyalty were presidential advisor Karl Rove and the Vice President’s then-chief of staff, Lewis “Scooter” Libby. Both recognized that the Powell-Armitage State Department was not on the President’s team with respect to virtually any aspect of the administration’s post-9/11 foreign and defense policies. Weakening, if not removing, such counterweights to Foggy Bottom’s influence and agenda would have been a fringe benefit arising from the Deputy Secretary’s lack of transparency.
Unfortunately, the sort of destructive and disloyal behavior Deputy Secretary Armitage epitomized continues to be practiced in high reaches of the State Department. Notably, Under Secretary of State Nick Burns has pursued in recent months diplomatic initiatives on such sensitive matters as North Korea’s missile tests and Iran’s nuclear weapons ambitions that have mutated the President’s policies beyond recognition – and played into the hands of critics who accuse the Bush national security team of lacking coherence and competence.
Indeed, it is one of the great ironies of this presidency that an administration which prides itself on loyalty has for so long tolerated its systematic practice in the breach by the Department of State. The costs of such disloyalty have already been high: a government seen by friends and foes alike as distracted, at best, and, at worst, paralyzed by divided counsel, communicating mixed signals and signaling an irresolution that invites contempt and aggression.
Recent speeches by two of the people most loyal to Mr. Bush and his policies, Vice President Dick Cheney and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, and by the President himself, have squarely addressed the danger we face: Islamic fascists are on the march and we dare not ignore their menace – or fail to meet it effectively. These brave men have made clear that appeasement is not an option. If they wish to be taken seriously, let alone to secure the support of the American people for their policies, however, they must ensure that the President’s team is no longer undercut by disloyalists among the administration’s own senior ranks.