DURING the Gulf Crisis, the Bush administration tried to convince Americans that it had developed a flawless plan for liberating Kuwait. From top to bottom, administration officials seemed throughly convinced of the correctness of past, present and future policy in the region.
But over the past couple weeks, it has been revealed that our leaders were not as unified on the correct course of action as they had led Americans to believe. The facade has crumbled.
Most Americans know that General H. Norman Schwarzkopf recently gave a television interview in which he recalled recommending a longer ground offensive. The very next day, President Bush and Defense Secretary Richard Cheney insisted that Schwarzkopf had agreed with the president's decision all the way.
Schwarzkopf apologized for his recalcitrance and retracted his words. The president downplayed the incident, saying that the four-star general should forget about it.
But administration officials were not so kind to Dennis E. Kloske '76-'77, undersecretary of commerce for export administration. Kloske told a House subcommittee that prior to the invasion of Kuwait, he had recommended that exports of military technology to Iraq be restricted. He said that instead, the administration chose to follow State Department suggestions to allow purchases in order to maintain good diplomatic relations.
According to unnamed government sources cited in The New York Times, Kloske was fired. His official resignation was secured by Commerce Secretary Robert A. Mosbacher at the request of John H. Sununu, White House chief of staff.
The administration axed Kloske. It pressured Schwarzkopf to shut up. These actions will make any official think twice before he or she explains what's wrong with government policy.
But by squashing dissent, the administration only hurts itself and the democratic process. Free discussion of ideas generates better policies. Isn't that what Americans want?
THERE ARE TIMES when it may be appropriate to silence internal dissent. For example, Nixon's normalization of relations with China may not have occured if the public had known about the president's behind-the-scenes diplomatic posturing. It was appropriate to keep the ongoing initiative out of the public eye. If Schwarzkopf had told PBS on January 15 that the air offensive was slated to begin the next day, Bush would have been right to dismiss him.
But the actual Schwarzkopf case, as well as the Kolske case--is entirely different. Their statements created no risk to present and future American policies. In these instances, Bush was suppressing dissent about decisions and actions performed in the past.
The ground offensive had been over for a month before Schwarzkopf's remarks were televised. The president had already made a decision, and Schwarzkopf had carried it out. In the Kloske case, the decision about export controls had been made a number of years earlier. Kloske merely told the subcommittee how the policy was arrived at and for what reasons.
The damage had already been done. The policies had already been executed. Their critics deserve to be heard.
ANOTHER REASON Bush keeps disagreements under wraps is that they hurt the administration's credibility. The government wants citizens to think that it always pursues the correct policies. It wants to encourage trust, defer ence and uncritical support. Internal dissent might undermine the legitimacy of the regime.
This argument doesn't carry much weight in a democracy.
People tend to disagree sometimes. The more important the issue, the greater the number of alternative views. No one is right about everything all of the time.