Column: Saving General Powell

Mr. Carpenter is a writer and doctoral candidate in American history.

At the time of this writing -- 17 days after the first most senseless act of the new century and 7 days after the president's speech to the nation -- Democrats, Republicans, Independents, Know Nothings and Greenbacks are justifiably at peace with George W. Beltway brotherhood wafts through the autumn air. All past executive wrongs and ill-advised policies are forgiven. Even its current wrongs are pretty much dismissed, such as White House spokesman Ari Fleischer's ghastly totalitarian remark that these days Americans must"watch what they say and watch what they do." Mostly, though, the United States has spent this time quietly pondering appropriate retaliatory acts against its terrorist foes -- whoever and wherever they may be.

Our sustained refusal to shadowbox with unfocused vengeance is laudable. America's present posture signals that Colin Powell's role in strategy forging -- once seen as secondary, if noticeable at all -- consists of more than giving tactful press conferences and simply hoping that Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz would shove his impetuous bellicosity up his missile site. To date, the administration's caution reaffirms the sensible statement made by Bush on September 20:"We'll meet violence with patient justice." If Powell can maintain his new-found inner-circle stature by, one assumes, continuing to sneak thorazine tablets into Bush Inc.'s coffee each morning, he might manage the avoidance of needless international bedlam and the further loss of innocent lives. He might also manage the capture or assassination of a few demonic psychotics, but one wonders if such measures could sufficiently compensate an outraged public. How, indeed, can we ever truly compensate for the madness committed on September 11?

Notwithstanding our present stance, an advertised alternative looms in which Powell's influence would vanish just as quickly as did faith-based initiatives. Bush showed worrisome indications of acute cognitive dissonance in his September 20 speech, starkly evidenced by the latter's acute self-contradiction. The speech -- purportedly a resolute proclamation of American policy -- in fact reads more like a transcript of Equal Time than assembled words of White House unity. Neither antsy hawks or cautious statesmen had the immediate upper hand in the midst of unspeakable chaos, so both camps seem to have conceded some ground. They split the difference in the hope that tomorrow will be a better day to persuade the presidential ear. Hence the speech's contradiction. To wit:

At its conclusion came the call for due deliberation, yet a few pages earlier Bush had labeled the Taliban regime a sorry lot of murdering miscreants (no argument there) who don't deserve the niceties of negotiations. He went on to"demand" that Kabul -- likely scheduled for renaming as Kaput -- hand over all Al Qaeda leaders, shut down terrorist training camps, and protect foreign journalists. Bush further declared"the Taliban must act and act immediately," or unpleasant consequences would ensue. In the face of these demands the Taliban has proceeded to act like an incorrigible teenager, essentially thumbing its nose at the United States while fleeing from the probable line of fire. No dummies, these wise men seeking oneness with Allah -- but at some later date, thank you.

Meanwhile the wise men left their Joe six-pack citizens to dig 4-feet bunkers of plywood as a defense against Tomahawk missiles capable of flattening entire power plants. Those poor, ignorant, wretched souls had no more say in September eleventh's execution of fundamentalist insanity than did our lost fellow Americans, but in one way or another they'll pay their nation's price. It would seem, I most regrettably concede, that postmodernism's once-cranky claim that human progress is a mere chimera is gaining intellectual capital. The world has launched this century in far dirtier waters than the last and its everyday occupants still possess an absolute lack of autonomy. Authoritarian lunatics regularly hold the cards, run the world's asylum, and laugh at the impotency of a superpower. Because superpowers don't like being laughed at, something will have to give.

The administration's internal clash of patience versus rage will leave but one doctrinal camp standing. Such weighty internal power plays don't abide compromise. Should Rumsfeld lock Powell in the White House basement and then wander about whistling"Happy Days Are Here Again," Bush would be helpless in the face of uncontested advice. He lacks the intellectual tools, independence of mind, or foreign policy experience to withstand a unified verbal assault of"Act now." On the other hand, the wisdom of retaining Powell's diplomatic strategy has a steep political downside for Bush. It just ain't macho enough. The attractiveness of the Secretary of State's policy has a quite limited life span should politics take the helm; whether it does or not is solely Bush's decision. He must choose between the emotional politics of war and the less flashy clinical pursuit of"patient justice."

No matter which permanent path he takes, national solidarity will ensue for a time. But political hell is bound to break loose. Anything short of wholesale decimation won't cut it with the hard-liners. Anything much beyond intelligence gathering. diplomatic duck alignment, and the low-key apprehension of terrorist culprits won't cut it with the soft-liners.

Most importantly, anything short of a discernible"victory" -- or at minimum one clearly within our grasp -- won't cut it with the public. President Lincoln understood the wartime need of a public utterly confident of victory. A weakening of that confidence would lead to the weakening of his congressional base; disillusionment would begin feeding on itself; and the Union cause would be lost. Lincoln needed solid victories to reassure the Northern public that a favorable end was in sight. And that, of course, is why he fired army commander after army commander until he found the innovation of Grant. Lincoln's worries were as much political as military.

Today, the true impossibility of certain victory against a mobile, invisible enemy, as well as the implausibility of claiming victory with legitimacy, could very well break the back of the Bush presidency. His celestial approval ratings will begin to sag; heartless pollsters will emerge as media stars; and political grandstanding will return as Washington's favorite and most natural game.

I hope to God I'm wrong when I say that Bush cannot win this war. He can merely duel here and there. Peace will be had only with profoundly fundamental foreign policy changes, but the Old School majority in this administration likely will prove incapable of reaching those innovative depths.

P. M. Carpenter is a writer, student of history, and professional artist. His artwork site is:

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