An effective American war president–these days, a president who understands that the terror war can only be won on offense–needs an effective offensive team. Three years into the long war ahead, George W. Bush has a good start on one. But the Left, with the usual media suspects piling on, is working overtime to emasculate it. John Ashcroft is a constant target, and this spring, there was a major “dump Rumsfeld” campaign. This summer, Vice President Cheney is the main target.
The dump-Rumsfeld campaign went nowhere. Bush didn’t budge, and the public didn’t buy it. Wall-to-wall, round-the-clock images of the Abu Ghraib naked-prisoner pyramid didn’t convince most Americans that our Defense secretary was responsible for the shameful behavior of a small group of guards in a single cell block of a single Baghdad prison. Americans saw that our military uncovered the abuses on its own, then took quick action to end them. They didn’t let the dirty-picture show obscure the fact that under this defense secretary our transformed military won lightening-fast victories, first in Afghanistan, then in Iraq, and did it with fewer troops, fewer casualties, and less collateral damage than anyone had predicted. Rumsfeld’s favorability ratings stayed high; in some polls, more than 80 percent opposed the idea of dumping him.
The vice president is a harder case when it comes to p.r. He’s as valuable to the Bush terror-fighting team as Rumsfeld, but his successes are a lot less visible. That’s the nature of the job, when it’s done well–and Cheney does it well. He too was once an outstanding Defense secretary, but most Americans don’t associate him with the military they rightly admire. Because his penultimate job was CEO of Halliburton–a fact the liberal press constantly reminds us of–average Americans associate Cheney with big business. Many are ambivalent, at best, about big American corporations, and largely uninformed about the vital role they play in the war effort. That makes Cheney an easy target. His enemies’ refrain–”It’s not the Islamofascists, stupid; it’s greedy, evil American corporations we must destroy”–may be a suicidal lie, but it strikes a chord with many. As a result, Cheney’s poll numbers are not as high as they should be, but they’re not as low as his detractors pretend. The Right loves him, the president is rock-solid in support of him, and–with the election less than four months away–polls indicate that the ticket would make no real gains by dumping him. It would be seen as a sign of weakness, as shown by the fact that the numbers opposed to dumping him are higher than his approval ratings.
Cheney’s poll numbers are not the problem–Bush’s are. The country needs him. He is, after all, the president who did away with head-in-the-sand diplomacy, military pinpricks, and the law-enforcement approach to war–the president who gave the orders that led to our first two big victories in the terror war. And, although he came into office as president of a 50-50 nation, he soon succeeded in rallying the country behind him. Polls show that despite the setbacks that are inevitable in any war, most Americans have been with Bush, most of the time, from the day he stood in the ashes of the World Trade Center and told exhausted firemen, “I can hear you, and soon, the whole world will hear you,” to the day he stood on the deck of the USS Lincoln under a “Mission Accomplished” banner and thanked the troops for a job well done.
His opponents mock that banner now, but they are wrong. The mission–the liberation of Iraq–was well done; it was the follow-up mission–the establishment of security and the transfer of power to an Iraqi government–that was not. On that mission, intra-administration conflicts emerged in a big way and impeded our progress. They delayed the appointment of a sovereign Iraqi interim government for a year–a year in which the great popular support we had initially turned, first to impatience, then to widespread anger against the occupation. Those same internal conflicts also made us powerless to prevent a deterioration in the security situation. They led to decisions like the one that forced American Marines to retreat just when they were about to destroy the terror nucleus in Fallujah, and like the pair that caused us to announce, loudly, that we were going to arrest Moqtada al-Sadr, and then, with all of Iraq watching, fail to do so. America was watching too. The president’s poll numbers fell, and the 50-50 nation reemerged.
This unhappy period might have ended on June 28, when power was finally handed over to an Iraqi government that seems to be adopting a more resolute and aggressive security stance. But American anxiety about the war has not yet dissipated. Many fear we are no longer fighting to win but are rather bogged down in an endless war of politically correct half-measures. That makes some look again to the U.N.-style multilateralism John Kerry touts, not because they still believe the U.N. can deal with Iraq’s problems, but because they have lost faith that we can, and they want out. It is, after all, an instinctive American response: Deal with it or dump it; fight to win or get out. The truth, of course, is that we can’t “dump it”–we can’t opt out of this war–because our enemies won’t let us. We can only win or lose, in Iraq as elsewhere, and what President Bush needs to do to win reelection and the war is to restore America’s confidence in the fact that we are fighting to win, and will succeed.
To do that, it’s not enough to retain the best of his old terror fighters and turn them loose again; he must also strengthen his team in a way that sends a clear message to friends and foes alike that the divisions and delays of the past year are truly past, and that in his second term every major player in his administration will be as effective as the winning Bush-team warriors Rumsfeld, Cheney, and Ashcroft. It’s no secret that the CIA has been the least effective of our war-fighting agencies, and the resignation of George Tenet is a golden opportunity for the president to send that message by naming a new director of central intelligence who can truly reshape the agency.
The agency needs reshaping–not just because it has been wrong about so much so often, and not just because it empowers the kind of overcautious, self-protective bureaucrats who drive out gutsy agents like Robert Baer, but because it is riddled with people who refuse to take responsibility for their failures and struggle to correct them. The CIA has become a prime source for “leaks”–hostile propaganda directed not against our enemies but against the administration and its friends. Hostile acts, too, like appointing a sneering, preening incompetent like Joseph Wilson to try to obscure Saddam Hussein’s attempts to buy yellowcake from Niger. Hostile acts like mounting a smear campaign against Ahmed Chalabi to obscure the fact that–according to the man in the best position to know, General Richard Myers–time after time Chalabi gave our forces actionable intelligence in Iraq that they could not get from the CIA.
Then, too, there is the question of allowing personal cameras into Abu Ghraib. If initial reports are right and CIA interrogators were at work in the cell block where the abuses took place, it’s hard to understand how they could have failed to make certain that no guard there had a camera. CIA men may not have known about the pornographic excesses of Army Spec. Charles Graner and his gang, but they should have known that some prisoners were kept naked in their cells, and any CIA man would have to be rock-dumb not to know that pictures of naked Arabs would be a coup for enemy propaganda and do serious damage to the American war effort.
Will the committee reports rolling out of Congress get the agency back on track? I think not, because Herbert E. Meyer is right: As he wrote in the Wall Street Journal in June, finding outstanding men, not shuffling organization charts, is the key to our success. Who, then, should the president pick? Porter Goss and John Lehman may be good men, but they are Washington insiders, and if ever there was a time when an outsider was needed to really clean house, this is it.
My first thought was James Woolsey. He’s a brilliant man, his knowledge of the spy business is broad and deep, and under President Clinton he had no real chance to show what he could do. But in the situation we face today, he has two drawbacks. First, his appointment would not send the message that needs to be sent: Most Americans would greet it with a shrug because they don’t know him. Second, it’s not altogether clear that he has the temperament and the capacity to bring a hostile bureaucracy to heel, take the intense heat that effort will engender, and remain undaunted and in firm control.
Rudy Giuliani, on the other hand–Michael Ledeen’s suggested nominee–has demonstrated precisely that temperament and that capacity, and all the world knows it. I think that makes him the best man for the job. If he can convince the White House that he is willing and able to subordinate the large ego that is an inescapable part of such a temperament, he could quickly compensate for his initial lack of familiarity with the foreign-intelligence field by choosing advisors who have it in spades, such as James Woolsey.
Cautious political advisers will tell the president that a Giuliani appointment will be controversial, and it will. They will say that with the election so close, now is not the time for so bold a move, and they will warn him that the “Religious Right” will not embrace Giuliani because he does not support the right to life. I think they are mistaken on both counts. When George W. Bush took bold steps in the past, the country rallied strongly behind him, and I believe that if he names Giuliani they will do so again, giving him the mandate he needs to fight and win the war on terror.
As for the “Religious Right,” I think too many people seriously underestimate their intelligence, and with it their ability to make critical distinctions. They would fiercely oppose Giuliani as Secretary of Health and Human Services, for example, but they will applaud him as DCI because they understand the Islamofascist threat better than most Americans, making them true stalwarts in the terror war.
President Bush has already asked Giuliani to speak at the Republican convention next month. If he names him DCI before then, it will rivet the nation’s attention, hearten his supporters, and convince waverers and undecideds that a reinvigorated Bush team can win this war.
–Barbara Lerner is a frequent NRO contributor.