THE RECENT scalding criticism of the Bush administration by Colonel Lawrence Wilkerson, chief of staff to former secretary of state Colin Powell until last January, should be welcomed for its patriotic intent and its therapeutic value. Speaking last week to a Washington think tank, Wilkerson lamented that a ''cabal" led by Vice President Dick Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld engaged in secret decision-making that inflicted grave harm on the country.
Wilkerson's castigation is good to have out in the open not merely because of the particular blunders he attributes to Cheney, Rumsfeld, and their collaborators, or because of his unfavorable comparison of President Bush with his father as a steward of US foreign policy. Wilkerson is justified in excoriating the cabal for its conduct of the war against Saddam Hussein, its refusal over four years to negotiate with North Korea, and its unnecessarily belated support of the European diplomatic effort to prevent Iran from becoming a nuclear power.
Still, his most damning critique was reserved for the group's secrecy and its evasion of the transparent give-and-take among policymakers that is needed to expose delusions and help avoid blunders. The administration ''made decisions in secret, and now I think it is paying the consequences of having made those decisions in secret," Wilkerson said. ''But far more telling to me is that America is paying the consequences of having made those decisions in secret." These include the demoralization of the US military and the proliferation of nuclear weapons.
Wilkinson recounted how Cheney and Rumsfeld ''made decisions that the bureaucracy did not know were being made." He described how the formal process of decision-making, with its ''policy coordinating committee, the deputies' committee, the principals' committee," was allowed to putter along, bereft of the ability to decide on policy and thereby rendered dysfunctional. Then, as though he were describing the workings of a Soviet Politburo, Wilkinson explained that ''the dysfunctionality camouflaged the efficiency of the secret decision-making process."
This is Wilkinson's way of denouncing the cabal's deliberate crippling of the visible policymaking bodies so a small clique, hidden from view, could make crucial decisions without debate or dissent.
In the American system, the ultimate responsibility for preventing the rise of a secretive government within the government belongs to the president. Bureaucratic and legislative mandates for a transparent policymaking process will be futile if the president is not a leader who demands to hear dissent and insists that all his advisers' assumptions be challenged by other advisers.