Commentary Magazine


The New York Times’ “Putsch”

In today’s New York Times Book Review, Geoffrey Wheatcroft reviews Richard N. Haass’s “War of Necessity, War of Choice.” As usual when a book about George W. Bush is involved, the review is actually more of an op-ed.

Wheatcroft’s effort is marred by his shaky grasp of the American Constitution. Here is his description of some “valuable insider’s insights” he found in the book:

[Haass] details the sheer contempt the Bushies showed toward the State Department (and Colin Powell), the great expansion of vice presidential power, and the way Donald Rumsfeld effectively silenced the Joint Chiefs of Staff.  Leaving aside Iraq itself, this series of events really added up to an extraordinary episode in American history, a kind of internal Washington putsch against the Constitution.

Under the Constitution, civilian authority controls the military, which is why the Secretary of Defense can decide (as Rumsfeld did) to deal directly with his field commanders rather than give the Joint Chiefs an independent voice. Assigning the Vice President important duties (such as inventing the Internet) was once considered admirable, not grounds for constitutional concern. And presidents as diverse as Harry Truman and Richard Nixon found that reverence for the views of the State Department was not always wise, much less constitutionally required.

Haass himself does not allege a kind of coup in his book.  He writes instead that, because of Powell’s inadequate advocacy skills, his failure to develop a better relationship with Bush, and the relative weakness of many of the senior State Department officials, the result was that “at the end of the day it was more often than not still the positions of those at the Defense Department, the Vice President’s office, and the NSC that mostly shaped U.S. policy” during Bush’s first term.  Some putsch.

Even a high school journalism teacher might have questioned Wheatcroft’s concept of a “putsch,” but not the editors of the New York Times Book Review, not for this kind of “review.”

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