The tipping point in the slow-motion crack-up of Bush radicalism -- more destabilizing in the long run, perhaps, than the crisis of Karl Rove and "Scooter" Libby; the collapse of the Harriet Miers nomination for the Supreme Court; the post-Katrina failures; the money lust of GOP lobbyist Jack Abramoff and friends; or the misadventures in Iraq -- may well be the dressing-down administered by two retired mandarins of old-school Republicanism.
One is the crusty but brilliant retired Army Col. Larry Wilkerson, who served as longtime deputy at the Pentagon and the State Department to Gen. Colin Powell. The other, more nuanced than Wilkerson but equally gifted in the ways of the world, is retired Air Force Gen. Brent Scowcroft, the trusted strategist who served two presidents, Gerald Ford and George H.W. Bush, in the sensitive post of national-security adviser, and gave pointed advice to three others, Nixon, Clinton and Bush the younger. Clinton listened. George W. didn't.
Last month, in separate expressions of outspoken disapproval -- little noted by the mainstream press but well attended by power players and policy makers -- Wilkerson and Scowcroft unleashed battering broadsides against the current administration.
In so doing, they provided a preview of the impending battle over who next runs the Republican Party: the romantics of the far right, who got us into deep trouble in Iraq, or the restless realists of old-school conservative Republicanism, who clamped their mouths shut in the interest of party unity -- until now.
The specialty of Wilkerson and Scowcroft is the management of power, both military and diplomatic. Both had the ear and confidence of their superiors in difficult times. Both are case-hardened realists who scorn the taking on of military adventures with uncertain outcomes. Now both are taking aim at the concentration of power monopolized by Vice President Dick Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, who steer the ship of state on foreign and military policy, with a strong assist by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, filling the vacuum of an uninterested president.
In a speech to a roomful of Washington influentials, Wilkerson declared that the trio had "courted disaster in Iraq, in North Korea, in Iran," and he threw in Katrina, to boot.
He likened the leadership of this "cabal" to "a major pandemic" of "ineptitude," which will take us back to the crisis of the American Revolution -- "real dangerous times, if we don't get our act together."
Similarly, in an interview in The New Yorker magazine, General Scowcroft assaulted as unrealistic the stated neo-conservative goal of bringing democracy to Iraq, which Bush has embraced. Scowcroft in 1991 urged Bush the elder to take on Saddam Hussein and roll back the tyrant's invasion of Kuwait. He's no wuss.
"But there has to be a good reason for using force," he said. "America is suffering from the consequences of [a] brand of revolutionary utopianism. You encourage democracy over time, with assistance and aid, the traditional way. Not how the neocons do it."
He was equally frank about the vice president's role, describing him as "a real anomaly.I consider Cheney a good friend -- I've known him for 30 years. But Dick Cheney I don't know anymore."
Significantly, Scowcroft's best friend is George W.'s father -- so close, in fact, that the retired general owns a condominium in Kennebunkport, Maine, near the Bush family home. This is one reason Scowcroft's words caused a seismic tremor under GOP granite. He would hardly have launched his salvo at the present administration, it's believed, had he not at least informed his close friend that he was going to scold his son. Did the former president encourage him?
Is the father using the general to take the strap to the kid? There is that suspicion, and it magnifies the reverberative thunder of Scowcroft's words.
Wilkerson was even more pointed. He accused Cheney and Rumsfeld of making policy in secret, of failing to share it with the bureaucracy that must carry it out and seek their guidance and advice. Of the "cabal," he said: "I have never seen such bastardizations, perturbations, changes to the national-security decision-making process."
The candid words of these wise old warrior-patriots underscore the menacing place to which our present national leadership has led us -- and the world. With a wrecked Army, Marine Corps, National Guard and Reserves, we are seen by our rivals and enemies as toothless. The "Pax Americana" we have imposed on the world for more than 50 years is undermined. A resource war is shaping up over the shrinking pool of global oil.
Wilkerson revealed that contingency plans exist for seizing Mideastern oil and placing it under United Nations "trusteeship," for peaceful distribution. Assuming that the plan were not so remote and dangerous, the United States lacks the force to implement it. But its very existence underscores the urgency of putting a realistic world-view in place, and the need to heed what the wise men hint at: the replacement of neocon utopianism with pragmatism in Republican policymaking.
As for the Democrats, now counting on silence to return them to power, it's imperative that they tell us with one voice how they would deal with a gravely weakened nation and a menacing world.
Lethargy never won an election. Nor has adventurism advanced the cause of the party in power for very long.
Jerry M. Landay, of Bristol, Rhode Island, is a retired CBS Washington and foreign correspondent.
© 2005 The Providence Journal