Give ’em a Call

How to mitigate the collateral damage of hurt feelings.

by Victor Davis Hanson

Tribune Media Services

When Abraham Lincoln conducted a controversial war, he stocked his Cabinet with former critics and potential rivals like Salmon Chase, Edwin Stanton and William Seward. Perhaps he sought a diversity of opinion or wished to appeal to a wider public constituency. But just as likely, the sly president thought stroking egos in Washington was in the long run smarter than riling them.

Franklin Roosevelt did the same during World War II, bringing aboard Republicans like Frank Knox, John McCloy and Henry Stimson.

And wily Bill Clinton not only brought in conservative commentator David Gergen, but deflected criticism over the various bombing campaigns conducted without Senate approval — in Iraq, Bosnia, Serbia, Kosovo and Africa — by having the Republican William Cohen run the Defense Department. Apparently, like Lincoln and Roosevelt, Clinton figured that many in Washington would not try to score points against a policy they were knee-deep in.

Most Americans would not want a Secretary of Defense Nancy Pelosi or National Security Adviser Howard Dean, but there are a variety of lesser ways of disarming critics without endangering the security of the United States.

Take three of George Bush’s loudest detractors.

The war veteran John Murtha and former blanket supporter of the Pentagon now criticizes every aspect of current policy in Iraq. He writes, he lectures, he gives endless interviews — always damning the current war as a failure.

Indeed, Congressman Murtha has become the Energizer Bunny of the anti-war crowd. What charged him so?

Consider this sentence from a recent Newsweek profile of the congressman:

“When Murtha tried to write George W. Bush with some suggestions for fighting the Iraq war, the congressman’s letter was ignored by the White House.”

A peeved Murtha then unloaded to the magazine: “None. None. Zero. Not one call. I don’t know who the hell they’re talking to. If they talked to people, they wouldn’t get these outbursts. If they’d talked to me, it wouldn’t have happened.”

I take Murtha at his word that his own furor was prompted by a perceived slight rather than a genuine desire to draw off public support from the war.

A hostile Richard Clarke, the former counter-terrorism adviser, proved just as ubiquitous, assuring the American people that all of our past successes against terrorism were mostly his, and the present supposed blunders the administration’s alone. He wrote a book, appeared on televised exposes and gave public lectures to prove the effort to remove Saddam and foster democracy was foolhardy.

But once again much of Clarke’s conversion from insider to muckraker came from black-and-blue feelings. He experienced a humiliating comedown once Condoleezza Rice ran the National Security Council — a reduced staff and fewer meetings with administration bigwigs. And when the Bush administration created the Department of Homeland Security, no one called poor Richard in to help head it.

Gen. Wesley Clark also proved an insider critic of the Iraqi war. He consistently drew on his military background — when running for president, appearing on CNN or writing newspaper columns — to assure us that Iraq was an abject folly.

But the chagrined general was not always so inclined to criticize the Bush administration. Before Sept. 11, Clark once exclaimed, “And I’m very glad we’ve got the great team in office, men like Colin Powell, Don Rumsfeld, Dick Cheney, Condoleezza Rice, Paul O’Neill — people I know very well — our president George W. Bush.”

So how and why did a former supporter of George Bush turn frenzied critic and political rival?

Sadly, there is a Murtha moment here, too. According to Colorado Gov. Bill Owens and Marc Holtzman, now a gubernatorial candidate in Colorado, Clark complained to them, “I would have been a Republican if Karl Rove had returned my phone calls.”

Of course, these sour-grapes stories are one-sided (and criticism from sulky Beltway insiders is not always self-interested). And even if Murtha, Clarke and Clark were rudely rebuffed, there are hardly enough limos and corner offices in Washington to soothe every such bruised ego.

Still, these three share uncanny commonalities: They are insiders who worked closely with the White House when a Democrat was in office; they are smart and outspoken; and, after feeling hurt by the current administration, they became damaging to the present cause in Iraq. These three are different folk than loose-cannon renegades like the ambassador Joseph Wilson or weapons inspector Scott Ritter.

There are lessons here in managing a difficult war. We must never forget age-old considerations such as pride, honor and status. Washington is a Darwinian place where the ambitious arrive, leaving friends, family and birthplace behind to calibrate their new self-worth by the degree to which they are considered important — and needed.

So, next time, it might be wiser to give a holler to those like a brooding John Murtha, Richard Clarke or Wesley Clarke — even if their advice would probably be unsound. No Cabinet job necessary — just an invite to come down to schmooze at the White House rather than having them scream at it from the outside.

©2005 Victor Davis Hanson

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