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Fightin' men and fightin' words
Media General News Service


October 31, 2005

WASHINGTON - The neo-conservative winners of the Oval Office wrestling match that preceded the Iraq war have long ago seized their laurels, and soldier-statesman Colin Powell slumped away in defeat. But you get the feeling this struggle still is an open wound for the vanquished.

Retired Col. Lawrence Wilkerson was Powell's chief of staff at the State department for more than four years. In a recent speech to the New American Foundation, he charged that an Oval Office "cabal" overran the bureaucracy in a "secret decision making process."

This is not a new charge. In fact, it was the basis of Bob Woodward's contemporaneous book on the run-up to the Iraq invasion.

Wilkerson said, "I saw for four plus years ... aberrations, bastardizations, perturbations, changes to the national security decision making process ... 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."

The ferocity with which Wilkerson has renewed these charges probably reflects deepening political vulnerability of this administration. A stronger president could shrug off such words as sour grapes from the losing side.

But this could cause some difficulty for Powell's successor at the State department, Condoleezza Rice, who was viewed as a neutral arbiter between these powerful men when she was the national security adviser to President Bush.

Wilkerson said he does not view Rice as neutral. His "Rasputin version" of Rice was that she had made a decision to side with the president and join his cabal with Cheney and Rumsfeld "to build intimacy with the president."

The portrayal of Rice as a yes-woman, never challenging the president's judgment, while Cheney and Rumsfeld dominated him, has been heard before. But implying that she did it to for reasons of personal advancement is new. Even Rice's toughest critics concede her intellectual gifts.

As Powell's successor as secretary of State, Rice is proving independent, managing to overcome an administration with a bad reputation and widespread international opposition, which she helped to build at the White House.

Policy shifts Powell was unable to achieve on Iran and North Korea have suddenly won White House approval with Rice at the helm. This is reportedly a source of some bitterness for Powell, who grumbled privately to friends that Rice privately blocked such initiatives when she was at the White House.

Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright said she is pleased to see Rice traveling frequently. She notes, however, that even her one-day trip to Canada last week stirred up controversy on everything from defense to trade agreements. Polls indicate Canadians widely regard Americans as arrogant and bullying.

"It takes a lot to have bad relations with Canada," sniffed Albright.

Richard Holbrooke, the former ambassador for Democratic presidents, said in The Washington Post, "The immensely disciplined Rice is seeking to undo damage done in the past four years without ever admitting there was any _ a nifty bit of cognitive dissonance, but one she seems determined to pull off."

Of Powell, Holbrooke questioned last week how "a national hero universally respected for his decency and integrity and whose approval ratings were 30 points higher than those of Bush could lose so many of the big battles."

Clearly, there was a personality and cultural gulf between Bush and Powell.

But an even bigger chasm has opened between some of the civilians at the Pentagon and the retired top brass.

Wilkerson took a swipe at former Undersecretary of Defense Douglas Feith, who has now reentered the private sector, declaring "seldom in my life have I met a dumber man."

Actually, Retired Army Gen. Tommy Franks beat him to the punch. In his autobiography, "American Soldier," Franks acknowledged once telling troops that word was going around that Feith was "the ... stupidest guy on the face of the earth."

Feith graduated magna cum laude from Harvard. He was among the so-called neo-conservatives who made most of the decisions leading up to the Iraq war. In addition, Feith was associated with many of the questionable judgments about the Geneva Convention and the treatment of enemy combatants in the war on terrorism.


John Hall is the senior Washington correspondent of Media General News Service.
E-mail jhall(at)

Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service,

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