The War Within Washington

The Republicans have gone to war, only this time it's against themselves.

This war is over going to war, specifically against Iraq. The hawks are led by Pentagon chief Donald Rumsfeld, Vice President Dick Cheney, and the neo-conservative Likudniks who surround them. Also arrayed on their side are a host of cheerleaders in the media, including the editorial page of the Wall Street Journal, Rupert Murdoch-owned Weekly Standard and Fox News channel, and political pundits like Charles Krauthammer and Bill Kristol.

Speaking out against the planned attack are the foreign-policy veterans of the elder Bush administration, led by the old man's national security adviser, retired Gen. Brent Scowcroft, former Secretary of State Larry Eagleburger, and, inside the younger Bush administration, Secretary of State Colin Powell, who served as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff during the Gulf War.

The two sides began jousting shortly after Sept. 11, even as the nation was still reeling from the attacks. Less than ten days later, members of the Project for a New American Century (PNAC) published an open letter to the president pressing him to oust Iraqi President Saddam Hussein as part of the global war against terrorism "even if evidence does not link Iraq directly to the [Sept. 11] attack."

At the same time, the chairman of the Defense Policy Board (DPB), neo-con Richard Perle, with the support of Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, and his like-minded deputy, Paul Wolfowitz, convened the DPB to discuss possible ways to overthrow Saddam. The DPB also invited the head of an Iraqi opposition group to address them, without notifying the Powell-led State Department.

As war drums began sounding in Washington, the usually low-profile Scowcroft published an op-ed in the Washington Post stressing the need to build a broad coalition of European and Arab allies to support the war against terror. The elder Bush's national security adviser argued that any unilateral action against Iraq would be potentially ruinous for such an effort. In response, columnist Charles Krauthammer accused both Scowcroft and Powell of being responsible for the ultimate betrayal of the Gulf War: persuading Bush Sr. to stop the war at the Kuwaiti border instead of taking it all the way to Baghdad.

The low-intensity conflict continued into the spring when Scowcroft voiced concerns in the Post about Bush Jr.'s failure to exert real pressure on Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to withdraw his forces from the re-occupied West Bank. The withdrawal would be an important first step in an expedited peace process that would include the deployment of an international force to separate the two sides. Within a month, however, President Bush moved precisely in the opposite direction, aligning U.S. policy squarely with Sharon, thanks to the increasing influence of Cheney and the Pentagon hawks.

The war warmed up again in July, however, when the uniformed military at the Pentagon started leaking detailed plans for war against Iraq -- plans that made clear the profound divide within the administration between civilian hawks and the senior military officers and State Department and CIA analysts who opposed the planned war.

Scowcroft fired the opening salvo in a broadside published in the staunchly neo-conservative Wall Street Journal. Apart from jeopardizing international cooperation in the war on terrorism, Scowcroft warned that the attack "could well destabilize Arab regimes in the region, ironically facilitating one of Saddam's strategic objectives."

Scowcroft, who has access to top-level intelligence as the chairman of the Presidential Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board (PFIAB), also dismissed any suggestion of a link between Saddam Hussein and al-Qaeda. "[T]here is scant evidence to tie Saddam to terrorist organizations, and even less to the Sept. 11 attacks," he wrote. "Indeed, Saddam's goals have little in common with the terrorists who threaten us, and there is little incentive for him to make common cause with them." It was a move designed to infuriate the hawks who have repeatedly referenced such links as a sound justification for a war.

Scowcroft's op-ed might well have created little more than a minor stir during the dog days of summer. But instead it became a major media event the very next day, when the New York Times cited Scowcroft's dissent in its lead article headlined, "Top Republicans Break with Bush on Iraq Strategy."

The article cited Scowcroft's article and a column by former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, who argued that a war against Iraq could be justified but required greater support at home and abroad. It also drew special attention to similar critiques recently voiced by Lawrence Eagleburger and Sen. Chuck Hagel. And it quoted unnamed senior State Department officials who said they were working desperately from within to halt the push towards war.

The bomb-Saddam crowd was quick to respond. On Monday, readers got a double blast, with both the Journal and the Standard taking aim at the Times and Scowcroft. In its lead editorial titled "This is Opposition?" the Journal ridiculed any notion of a split within Republican ranks. Journal editors claimed that Scowcroft and Powell were practitioners of "realpolitik," which "striv[es] for balance of power in the old European sense, [and] ... typically favors 'stability,' even when it's imposed by dictators over democratic aspiration." They went on to blame Scowcroft for "stop[ping] the Gulf War early, based in part on a CIA fear that a divided Iraq without a dictator was worse than a 'stable' Iraq ruled by Saddam or his Baath Party successor."

The Standard weighed in with its own attack penned by William Kristol, a PNAC founder and reliable spokesman for the neo-cons allied with Cheney and Rumsfeld. The article, "The Axis of Appeasement," accused the Times of "shamelessly" mischaracterizing Kissinger's position, noting that "the establishment fights most bitterly and dishonestly when it feels cornered and thinks it's about to lose."

"Reading the Scowcroft/New York Times 'arguments' against the war, one is struck by how laughably weak they are," Kristol wrote. "European international-law wishfulness and full-blown Pat Buchanan isolationism are the two intellectually honest alternatives to the Bush Doctrine," he added. "Scowcroft and the Times embrace neither, so they pretend instead to be terribly 'concerned' with the administration alleged failure to 'make the case' [for going to war]."

But the central target of Kristol's attack was Colin Powell, who is seen as the heart of the "axis of appeasement."

"Colin Powell is an impressive man. He is loyally assisted by the able (Deputy Secretary of State) Richard Armitage. They are entitled to their foreign policy views. But they will soon have to decide whom they wish to serve -- the president, or his opponents," Kristol wrote. The column also cited various statements made by Rumsfeld, Cheney and national security adviser Condoleezza Rice defending the war, presumably as evidence of their loyalty.

Whether and how Scowcroft or Powell will return fire remains to be seen, but initial signs suggest that -- as Kristol predicts -- Powell will indeed have to choose sides. Soon after, the White House announced that Powell will be sent to Johannesburg for the Second Earth Summit -- the administration equivalent of Siberia -- while Rumsfeld, Cheney, and Rice were summoned to the Bush ranch in Crawford, Texas, on the very same day.

With the battle lines now so clearly drawn, the question now is who else will enter the fray.

Democrats, who control a majority of the Senate, are keeping so far to the rear as to be virtually invisible. While neo-con Joseph Lieberman is clearly on the Baghdad bandwagon and the Senate Foreign Relations Committee chair Joe Biden is lined up behind Powell, other leading Democrats have been more cautious. Party heavyweights, however, worry that a failure to support the war on Iraq will make them vulnerable to charges of disloyalty. A more immediate concern is the risk of alienating major Jewish donors, who have already contributed heavily to the defeat of southern black incumbent congressmen who criticized the extension of  the war on terrorism to include Yassir Arafat and Saddam.

But Scowcroft's willingness to take on the hawks has spurred much greater speculation about the position of Poppy Bush, who remains very close to his former top foreign-policy aide and even co-authored a 1997 book with him. "For Scowcroft to say anything that can be seen as critical towards the administration is quite amazing," noted one former senior official who worked with Scowcroft during the first Bush administration. "Frankly, I can't conceive of him doing so without first talking with Bush's dad."

Jim Lobe writes on foreign policy issues for AlterNet, Inter-Press Services, and Foreign Policy In Focus.

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