Thoughts on Paul O’Neill
Paul O’Neill has decided to open up about the inner workings of the Bush administration. He’s the primary source for a new Ron Suskind book, The Price of Loyalty: George W. Bush, the White House, and the Education of Paul O’Neill. O’Neill is also granting interviews galore — see both 60 Minutes and Time. Some ...
Paul O'Neill has decided to open up about the inner workings of the Bush administration. He's the primary source for a new Ron Suskind book, The Price of Loyalty: George W. Bush, the White House, and the Education of Paul O'Neill. O'Neill is also granting interviews galore -- see both 60 Minutes and Time. Some not-so-random thoughts: 1) Ron Suskind strikes again!! Despite the Bush administration's best efforts to keep White House leaks to a minimum (well, except if they involve CIA operatives) he has the ability to get Bush officials to open up on the record. 2) Paul O'Neill is a smart guy, but do bear in mind that he was a pretty lousy Treasury secretary when he was in charge. The day he left, I wrote the following:
Paul O’Neill has decided to open up about the inner workings of the Bush administration. He’s the primary source for a new Ron Suskind book, The Price of Loyalty: George W. Bush, the White House, and the Education of Paul O’Neill. O’Neill is also granting interviews galore — see both 60 Minutes and Time. Some not-so-random thoughts: 1) Ron Suskind strikes again!! Despite the Bush administration’s best efforts to keep White House leaks to a minimum (well, except if they involve CIA operatives) he has the ability to get Bush officials to open up on the record. 2) Paul O’Neill is a smart guy, but do bear in mind that he was a pretty lousy Treasury secretary when he was in charge. The day he left, I wrote the following:
O’Neill fundamental strengths were his intelligence and his willingness to say what he though even if it roiled markets and politicians. His fatal flaw was that he knew he was intelligent, and therefore never considered the possibility that he could be wrong. Also, saying what you think is not the most useful skill for a job that requires a fair amount of tact. Since O’Neill had no political ambitions, his incentive to correct these flaws were nil. Therefore, he never learned on this job.
Brad DeLong concurred that “O’Neill seems never to have tried to learn what his job was.” The Time story observed, “Rarely had a person who spoke so freely been embedded so high in an Administration that valued frank public remarks so little.” Later on in the story, even O’Neill thinks that O’Neill goes too far:
Describing top-level meetings, O’Neill tells Suskind that during the course of his two years the President was “like a blind man in a roomful of deaf people.” In his interview with TIME, O’Neill winces a little at that quote. He’s worried it’s too stark and now allows that it may just be Bush’s style to keep his advisers always guessing.
My point is not to claim that all of O’Neill’s criticisms can be dismissed in a single stroke. He’s clearly a smart person, and no doubt some of his criticisms have the ring of truth. My point is to remind people that O’Neill brings some baggage that he brings to the table — and that even smart people can let that baggage overwhelm them. 3) Both O’Neill and Suskind engage in some slightly revisionist history on Iraq. Here’s the 60 Minutes transcript on this point:
[W]hat happened at President Bush’s very first National Security Council meeting is one of O’Neill’s most startling revelations. “From the very beginning, there was a conviction, that Saddam Hussein was a bad person and that he needed to go,” says O’Neill, who adds that going after Saddam was topic “A” 10 days after the inauguration – eight months before Sept. 11…. He got briefing materials under this cover sheet. “There are memos. One of them marked, secret, says, ‘Plan for post-Saddam Iraq,’” adds Suskind, who says that they discussed an occupation of Iraq in January and February of 2001. Based on his interviews with O’Neill and several other officials at the meetings, Suskind writes that the planning envisioned peacekeeping troops, war crimes tribunals, and even divvying up Iraq’s oil wealth. He obtained one Pentagon document, dated March 5, 2001, and entitled “Foreign Suitors for Iraqi Oilfield contracts,” which includes a map of potential areas for exploration. “It talks about contractors around the world from, you know, 30-40 countries. And which ones have what intentions,” says Suskind. “On oil in Iraq.” During the campaign, candidate Bush had criticized the Clinton-Gore Administration for being too interventionist: “If we don’t stop extending our troops all around the world in nation-building missions, then we’re going to have a serious problem coming down the road. And I’m going to prevent that.” “The thing that’s most surprising, I think, is how emphatically, from the very first, the administration had said ‘X’ during the campaign, but from the first day was often doing ‘Y,’” says Suskind. “Not just saying ‘Y,’ but actively moving toward the opposite of what they had said during the election.”
Suskind’s revelations sound sexy, but they’re pretty overblown. As Glenn Reynolds has pointed out, a lot of what O’Neill talks about and what Suskind cites had been under discussion in the Clinton administration. In early 2001, “peacekeeping troops, war crimes tribunals, and even divvying up Iraq’s oil wealth” were not merely under discussion by neocons that might have wanted to invade Iraq, but by policy wonks across the board. At the time, the Washington consensus about the Iraq policy at the time was that the status quo was an untenable situation. A lot of meetings were being held about ways to rejigger U.S. policy. FULL DISCLOSURE — as a sanctions expert, I participated in one such bipartisan meeting chaired by Richard Haass in the early days of the transition. Most important, this narrative overlooks the fact that prior to September 11th, the State Department had the lead on Iraq policy — and they wanted to lift a lot of the sanctions. Don’t believe me? Check out Lawrence Kaplan’s attack on Colin Powell and Richard Haass (then-director of Policy Planning) in March 2001 in The New Republic (subscription is required). Kaplan preferred a more hawkish approach, so he took Powell to task. Here’s the good part:
Powell didn’t dream up this policy disaster on his own. Though the notion of scaling back sanctions against Iraq has been floating around the State Department for some time, much of the credit for dusting it off belongs to Richard Haass, a Powell ally from the first Bush administration whom the secretary of state has installed as his director of policy planning with the rank of ambassador. Haass, who’s made a name for himself over the years championing carrots rather than sticks in America’s dealings with Iraq, Iran, Libya, and pretty much everyone else. (Israel being the occasional exception), has become Powell’s Middle East guru. And in recent weeks he’s been peddling to administration officials recommendations gleaned from a policy paper titled, aptly enough, “Iraq: Time for a Modified Approach.” Written last month by Meghan O’Sullivan, who worked for Haass at the Brookings Institution, the brief for softening the sanctions regime neatly anticipates almost every utterance Powell has made recently about Iraq–from his insistence that loosening the embargo will dispel Arab anger to the old canard that “there is linkage to the situation between the Israelis and Palestinians.” Bush, of course, inherited Haass from his father’s Middle East team. And, with him, he’s inheriting its worst inclinations. Haass’s return to Middle East policy-making, coupled with the sanctions episode, has thrown administration hawks into a funk.
It’s worth reading the whole thing, if for no other reason to see Kaplan accuse Haass — who was a dove on Iraq — of being in the pocket of the oil companies!! The larger point is that Haass and Powell had the upper hand on Iraq policy — until September 11th. [UPDATE: Ted Barlow over at Crooked Timber has a Bush quote that captures this point perfectly]. Clearly, after 9/11, Bush changed his mind. But to claim that George W. Bush planned to invade Iraq from day one of his administration is utter horses&$t. 4) This paragraph from Time made me reflect on my own qualms with the Bush policy process:
So, what does O’Neill reveal? According to the book, ideology and electoral politics so dominated the domestic-policy process during his tenure that it was often impossible to have a rational exchange of ideas. The incurious President was so opaque on some important issues that top Cabinet officials were left guessing his mind even after face-to-face meetings. Cheney is portrayed as an unstoppable force, unbowed by inconvenient facts as he drives Administration policy toward his goals.
O’Neill’s statements dovetail with the TNR cover story by John Judis and Spencer Ackerman from six weeks ago (sorry, subscription required again) — this section in particular:
Cheney’s ideology hardly made a dent in the first Bush White House. But, in the second, George W. Bush tasked him with a robust foreign policy portfolio…. The Office of the Vice President (OVP) was more than a consolation prize. Cheney gave his national security staff far greater responsibilities than had traditionally been accorded the vice president’s team. His regional specialists wouldn’t be involved only in issues relevant to the vice president–they would participate fully in the policymaking process and attend almost every interagency meeting. When Cheney first created this new structure, some Bushies openly described the operation as a “shadow” NSC. For those in the NSC itself, it often seemed like the “shadow” had more power than the real deal. One former Bush official says, “In this case, it’s often the vice president’s office that’s driving the policy, leading the debate, leading the arguments, instead of just hanging back and recognizing that the vice president is not supposed to be driving the policy.”
I’m beginning to wonder how much Cheney’s activism — which Bush enabled — has thrown the NSC process completely off-kilter. UPDATE: I’m not sure I explained that last point completely. This has nothing to do with the policy positions Cheney has taken on Iraq or anything else. Rather, the difficulty is that even cabinet-level officials can be reluctant in disagreeing with him because he’s the vice-president. This leads to a stunted policy debate, which ill-serves both the President and the country. Brad DeLong’s excerpt from the Wall Street Journal on the cabinet-level meeting on steel tariffs provide another case where Cheney seemed to choke off opposition to his position. ANOTHER UPDATE: Bruce Bartlett has more. FINAL UPDATE: A lot of the commentors have asked me about O’Neill’s comments regarding both fiscal policy and the White House obsession with the political. Andrew Sullivan, after a funny line (“This White House is all about politics. Yes, and banks are full of money.”) makes much of the same points I would on this front. NO, REALLY, THIS IS THE FINAL UPDATE — I SWEAR: O’Neill walks back the Iraq allegations completely in this Reuters story:
He described the reaction to Suskind’s book as a “red meat frenzy” and said people should read his comments in context, particularly about the Iraq war. “People are trying to say that I said the president was planning war in Iraq early in the administration. Actually there was a continuation of work that had been going on in the Clinton administration with the notion that there needed to be a regime change in Iraq.” What surprised him, said O’Neill, was how much priority was given to Iraq by the president…. Asked about his comment that during Cabinet meetings Bush was like “a blind man in a room full of deaf people,” O’Neill said he regretted some of the language he used to describe his former boss. “If I could take it back, I would take it back. It has become the controversial centerpiece.” Pressed whether he would vote for Bush in the November presidential election, O’Neill said he probably would, but he said the American people needed to demand more of their leaders. (emphasis added)
Daniel W. Drezner is a professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University and co-host of the Space the Nation podcast. Twitter: @dandrezner
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