Should High Officials Resign When They Disagree with the President?

Roundup: Media's Take

John Tierney, in the NYT (April 25, 2004):

If they disagree with their president, a few officials resign, as Secretary of State Cyrus R. Vance did after Jimmy Carter's unsuccessful military attempt to rescue American hostages in Iran. A few are fired for insubordination, like Gen. Douglas MacArthur. But there is a third way, as Colin L. Powell has demonstrated.

Call it the Bartleby approach, in honor of the legal copyist in Melville's 1853 story, "Bartleby, the Scrivener." Refusing either to work or to leave his job, Bartleby deflects all commands from his boss with the maddeningly calm reply, "I would prefer not to."

Mr. Powell was never publicly hostile to President Bush, but in his own quiet, calm way he slowed the administration's rush to war in Iraq. His resistance was the worst-kept secret in Washington, and now it has been confirmed in detail in Bob Woodward's new book, "Plan of Attack," which depicts Mr. Powell as "the reluctant warrior."

Some critics have accused Mr. Powell of disloyalty and say he should have either resigned or kept quiet; his defenders say that his warnings were a useful reality check for Mr. Bush and have been borne out by events. Right or wrong, his reluctance is not surprising. Generals with combat experience have often been far more leery of going to war than civilians. Mr. Powell was not initially enthusiastic about fighting the first Persian Gulf war either, said Brent Scowcroft and other officials in the first Bush administration. Instead, he favored using troops to defend Saudi Arabia from attack.

The State Department spokesman, Richard A. Boucher, said Mr. Powell's reputation as a reluctant warrior is unfair. "As a soldier in 1990, his mission initially was to defend Saudi Arabia," Mr. Boucher said. "Then he brought back the plan to expel Iraq from Kuwait when diplomacy had spent its course."

Similarly, he said, Mr. Powell firmly supported the second war with Iraq. "Don't assume that because he raised questions he was opposed to the policy," Mr. Boucher said. "He was with the president."

Mr. Powell's caution was already evident in 1987 to a White House colleague, Peter Robinson, a presidential speechwriter. In his recent memoir, "How Ronald Reagan Changed My Life," Mr. Robinson tells of being summoned to a meeting with Mr. Powell, then the deputy national security adviser, to discuss a sentence in a coming presidential speech. Although Mr. Reagan had already approved the line, Mr. Robinson recalls, Mr. Powell's agency and the State Department considered it too belligerent, and Mr. Powell urged that it be deleted.

The issue remained unsettled until the day of the speech, Mr. Robinson recalls, when Mr. Reagan went ahead with the line. Standing at the Berlin Wall, he said, "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall."

Mr. Powell has a different recollection of that incident, Mr. Boucher, the State Department spokesman, said. "There was a discussion, but the line was O.K. with him," Mr. Boucher said. "It was the State Department that objected to the line."...

Gen. George McClellan, the Union commander, had, in the words of his exasperated president, a bad case of "the slows." Openly disdainful of Lincoln and his orders to fight, General McClellan was relieved of command and went on to run for president in 1864 as the nominee for the Democrats, whose platform called for ending the war.

Mr. Powell has said that his model is George C. Marshall, another general who became secretary of state. Like Mr. Powell, he stayed in the job, even while telling President Truman that he strongly disagreed with him on an important issue - the recognition of Israel. But Marshall kept his objections from becoming common knowledge.

At some point, though, a dissenter may cease to do himself or his boss much good, said John P. Burke, a co-author of "How Presidents Test Reality."

"Some officials lose today hoping they'll win tomorrow, but that can be a trap because they may not win tomorrow or next week or the next year," said Professor Burke, a political scientist at the University of Vermont. "They also may become what are called domesticated dissenters, offering dissenting policy views for show but with little practical impact."

Robert S. McNamara advocated escalating the Vietnam War early on, but eventually concluded that it was unwinnable. Yet he continued to defend the war publicly, and refused to air criticisms after he left office.

In lieu of criticizing the boss, principled resignation is sometimes the only option. "It seems to me when one is part of a team, one does not disagree with the coach's decisions once they have been made, even if one wishes that the decisions were different," said Zbigniew Brzezinski, who was national security adviser to President Carter. A good example of a dissenting team player, he said, was his rival in the administration, Mr. Vance, who felt compelled to resign after breaking with the president over the Iran rescue mission.

How much can you disagree and stay in the administration? "If there is an unresolvable moral conflict, the only truly honorable thing to do is resign," said Michael A. Genovese, the author of "The Power of the American Presidency."

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