Asia Time Online - Daily News
Asia Times Chinese
AT Chinese

    Front Page
     Oct 21, 2005
US policy and the 'Oval Office cabal'
By Jim Lobe

WASHINGTON - As top officials in the White House and Vice President Dick Cheney's office await possible criminal indictments for their efforts to discredit a whistle-blower, a top aide to former secretary of state, Colin Powell, on Wednesday accused a "cabal" led by Cheney and Pentagon chief Donald Rumsfeld of hijacking US foreign policy by circumventing or ignoring formal decision-making channels.

Lawrence Wilkerson, a retired colonel, also charged that, as national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice was "part of the problem" by not ensuring that the policy-making process was open to all relevant participants. Wilkerson served as Powell's chief of staff from 2001 to 2005 and when Powell was chairman of the joint chiefs of staff of the US Armed Forces during the

administration of former president, George H W Bush.

"In some cases, there was real dysfunctionality," said Wilkerson, who spoke at the New America Foundation (NAF), a prominent Washington think tank. "But in most cases ... she made a decision that she would side with the president to build her intimacy with the president."

"The case that I saw for four-plus years was a case that I have never seen in my studies of aberrations, bastardizations and perturbations in the national-security [policy-making] process," he said.

"What I saw was a cabal between the vice president of the United States, Richard Cheney, and the secretary of defense, Donald Rumsfeld, on critical issues that made decisions that the bureaucracy did not know were being made."

Wilkerson also stressed the "extremely powerful" influence of what he called the "Oval Office cabal" of Cheney and Rumsfeld, both former secretaries of defense with a long-standing personal and professional relationship.

He said they both were members of the "military-industrial complex" that former president, Dwight Eisenhower, warned the nation against in his 1961 farewell address.

Wilkerson's remarks come as the administration is besieged by record-low approval ratings and anticipation that a special prosecutor will hand down indictments of top aides to both Bush and Cheney, including President George W Bush's political adviser, Karl Rove, and Cheney's chief of staff, I Lewis "Scooter" Libby, in connection with efforts to discredit retired ambassador Joseph Wilson.

In July 2003, Wilson publicly challenged the administration's pre-war depiction of Iraq's alleged nuclear-weapons program, and particularly its assertion that Baghdad had sought to buy uranium yellow cake from Niger, an assertion that Wilson himself investigated and rejected in early 2002 after traveling to Niger as part of a Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) mission. White House officials, including Rove and Libby, told reporters that Wilson's wife worked for the CIA and had played a role in selecting him for the mission.

On Wednesday, Capitol Hill was rife with rumors that Cheney himself may also be indicted or resign over the scandal. They were given more credence by an anecdote recounted by the insider Nelson Report on Wednesday night that Powell had told a prominent Republican senator that Cheney had become "fixated" on the relationship between Wilson and his wife, Valerie Plame, after he and Bush learned about it directly from Powell.

Since his departure from the administration, Powell has declined to publicly criticize US policy or his former cabinet colleagues. Until now, Wilkerson has also kept his counsel, although he publicly opposed John Bolton's confirmation as UN ambassador. At that time, most analysts believed that Wilkerson reflected Powell's private views on Bolton.

That would not be surprising, as Wilkerson worked directly with or for Powell for some 16 years out of their 30-year-plus military and government careers. At the same time, Wilkerson said he had paid a "high cost" in his personal relationship with Powell for publicly speaking out.

"Wilkerson embodies Powell and [Powell's deputy secretary of state, Richard] Armitage," who is also a retired military officer, said Steve Clemons, who organized Wilkerson's NAF appearance. "That's how his remarks should be seen."

If so, it appears that Powell and Armitage have little but disdain for Rice's performance as national security adviser, although Wilkerson was more complimentary about her subsequent work at the State Department and the relative success she has enjoyed in steering US policy in a less-confrontational direction compared to the frustrations that dogged Powell.

Wilkerson attributed her success to several factors, including her "intimacy with the president" and the fact that the administration "finds itself in some fairly desperate straits politically and otherwise".

Most of his remarks, however, addressed what he described as a national-security policy-making apparatus that was made dysfunctional by secrecy, compartmentalization and distrust, as well as the machinations of the Cheney-Rumsfeld "cabal".

"You've got this collegiality there between the secretary of defense and the vice president," Wilkerson said. "And then you've got a president who is not versed in international relations - and not too much interested in them either. And so it's not too difficult to make decisions in this, what I call the Oval Office cabal, and decisions often that are the opposite of what you thought were made in the formal [decision-making] process.

"Why did we wait three years to talk to the North Koreans? Why did we wait four-plus years to at least back the EU-3 [Germany, France and Britain] approach to Iran?... The formal process ... camouflaged the efficiency of the secret decision-making process. So we got into Iraq.

"And then when the bureaucracy was presented with those decisions and carried them out, it was presented in such a disjointed, incredible way that the bureaucracy often didn't know what it was doing as it moved to carry them out.

"If you're not prepared to stop the feuding elements in the bureaucracy as they carry out your decisions, you are courting disaster. And I would say that we have courted disaster in Iraq, in North Korea, in Iran."

Wilkerson was particularly scathing about the former under secretary of defense for policy, Douglas Feith, citing (retired general) Tommy Frank's famous description of the neo-conservative ideologue as the "f...ing stupidest guy on the planet".
"Let me testify to that," he said. "He was. Seldom in my life have I met a dumber man. And yet, and yet, after the [Pentagon is given] control, at least in the immediate post-war period in Iraq, this man is put in charge. Not only is he put in charge, he is given carte blanche to tell the State Department to go screw themselves in a closet somewhere ... That's telling you how decisions were made and ... how things got accomplished."

He also denounced the abuse of detainees and said that Powell was particularly upset by it. "Ten years from now, when we have the whole story, we are going to be ashamed," he said. "This is not us. This is not the way we do business. I don't think in our history we've ever had a presidential involvement, a secretarial involvement, a vice presidential involvement, an attorney general's involvement in telling our troops essentially, 'Carte blanche is the way you should feel. You should not have any qualms because this is a different kind of conflict'.

"You don't have this kind of pervasive attitude out there unless you've condoned it," he said, adding. "It will take years to reverse the situation within the military." He said it was a "concrete example" of the result of the way the cabal worked.

Wilkerson also contrasted Bush's diplomacy very unfavorably with his father's. Referring to Bush's first meeting with former South Korean president, Kim Dae-jung, Wilkerson noted, "When you put your feet up on a hassock and look at the man who's won the Nobel Prize and is currently president of South Korea and tell him in a very insulting way that you don't agree with his assessment of what is necessary to be reconciled with the North, that's not diplomacy; that's cowboyism."

"It's very different when you walk in and find something you can be magnanimous about, that you can give him, that you can say he or she gets credit, that's diplomacy. You don't say, 'I'm the big mother on the block and everybody who's not with me is against me'. That's the difference between father and son."

At the same time, Bush had been "wonderful" in "putting his foot down" against a more aggressive policy on North Korea, at one point saying, according to Wilkerson, "I do not want a war on the Korean peninsula."

"That was very helpful, very helpful," said Wilkerson. "It helped us fight off some less desirable results."

Cheney, he said, was a "good executive" as defense secretary under George H W Bush, but appeared to change as a result of September 11. "I think [he] saw 9/11 and the potential for another 9/11 with nuclear weapons and suddenly became so fixated on that problem that it skewed his approach," Wilkerson said, adding that neither he nor Rumsfeld could be considered neo-conservatives.

On Iraq, he said he was "guardedly optimistic" because "we may have reached the point where we are actually listening to the Iraqis". US troops will likely have to remain in Iraq for between five to eight years, however, because "it is strategic in the sense that Vietnam was not". He predicted that a precipitous withdrawal "without leaving something behind we can trust, we will mobilize the nation, with 5 million men and women under arms to go back and take the Middle East within a decade", due to the US dependence on the region's energy sources.

Rice bowls them over (Oct 14, '05)


All material on this website is copyright and may not be republished in any form without written permission.
© Copyright 1999 - 2005 Asia Times Online Ltd.
Head Office: Rm 202, Hau Fook Mansion, No. 8 Hau Fook St., Kowloon, Hong Kong
Thailand Bureau: 11/13 Petchkasem Road, Hua Hin, Prachuab Kirikhan, Thailand 77110