'Now Hear This': Does the President Mean What He

Posted: Nov 27, 2001 12:00 AM
(Washington, D.C.): Every skilled government official knows the magic words: "What the President meant to say is...." And with good reason. This turn of phrase allows any presidential policy pronouncement with which the unelected, unaccountable and generally faceless bureaucracy disagrees to be subverted, if not undone. Over the years, this practice has been raised to an art form in the State Department, particularly when the President in question was of a relatively conservative stripe, like Ronald Reagan or George W. Bush. The permanent government types over in Foggy Bottom are much given to explaining to their foreign interlocutors statements and policies of which they disapprove in terms that contradict the clear meaning of the President's words. Rarely has that tendency been on more regular, public and troubling display, however, than under Colin Powell's tenure at State. This case of what might be considered chronic insubordination is put in the most flattering, indeed fawning, light in an 8,000-plus word paean to the Secretary of State published in Sunday's New York Times Magazine. The essay by Times columnist Bill Keller was headlined "The World According to Colin Powell" and based on several lengthy interviews with the Secretary of State. The main thrust of the piece is that Mr. Powell's view of the world is a lot more to the liking of the New York Times than is George W. Bush's. It is described as one "comfortable with alliances, treaties and international institutions, less assertive in the promotion of American values abroad, more Realpolitik in its judgments, more 'sandpapered' in its language as one aide put it. Powell is the standard-bearer for this camp, which includes most of the upper ranks of the State Department and some sympathizers in the White House, along with an outside chorus that notably includes the President's father." This "camp" unmistakably applauds Secretary Powell's efforts to recast and, in some cases at least, to redirect the President's policies. Consider the following illustrative examples: * Missile Defense: When Mr. Bush says the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty is "outdated," "obsolete," "dangerous" and something we need to "move beyond," what he means -- according to Mr. Powell -- is that it should be preserved for the foreseeable future. As the Keller article reports, "The important thing, [Powell] said, was to avoid abandoning the treaty altogether, with the probable high price in Russian, European and congressional good will. He argued that a concession to the Russians on the formalities of the ABM Treaty would be more than repaid in other ways...." Of course, President Bush is not the first occupant of the Oval Office to find Mr. Powell a determined opponent of missile defenses and advocate for preserving the ABM Treaty. Keller recounts how Secretary Powell mockingly "rolled his eyes" as he recounted how Mr. Reagan -- for whom then-General Powell worked as the National Security Advisor -- actually believed that the Strategic Defense Initiative could transform the nature of the security threat we faced from the USSR. Never mind that silly old Ronald Reagan actually succeeded in doing just that, despite Colin Powell, by using his SDI to accelerate the demise of the "Evil Empire." * The War on Terrorism: When Mr. Bush declares that if you "harbor...train or arm...or feed or fund a terrorist, you're a terrorist," what he meant to say -- according to Secretary Powell -- is that you are not a terrorist if you are "on" our side. Thus, nations that the State Department itself lists as sponsors of terrorism, such as Sudan, Syria and Iran, are not terrorists; at the very least they must be "good terrorists" (a status the President also clearly didn't mean to say didn't exist). As with missile defense, Secretary Powell continues to exhibit the bad judgment with respect to Iraq that caused him to be on the "wrong side of history" in an earlier administration. Though "Bush 41" heatedly denies it in the Keller piece, his Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Colin Powell, was influential in arguing against going to war with Saddam Hussein in 1990 and in leaving him in place at the end of hostilities in 1991. Now he is assiduously sowing confusion about whether warnings from "Bush 43" to take the war to each and every terrorist-sponsoring nation actually applies to one of the most dangerous, namely Saddam's Iraq. * 'Solving' the Palestinian-Israeli Conflict: Secretary Powell is working hard to arrange a similar pass for Yasser Arafat. If Mr. Powell succeeds in transforming the proto-state Palestinian Authority -- which harbors, trains, arms, feeds and funds terrorists every day -- into an actual terrorist-sponsoring state of "Palestine," President Bush will be surprised to discover that his commitment to an Israel living as a "Jewish State" "in peace and security" in the Middle East will be rendered meaningless. The irony is that President Bush has been, by and large, saying all the right things and engendering the popular support he needs and deserves for doing so. While the Foggy Bottom bureaucrats, the media elite and the so-called "international community" might prefer Secretary Powell's interpretations, the Nation's interests -- to say nothing of the President's credibility -- demand that what Mr. Bush says and what he means be the same thing.