WASHINGTON—The criticisms are searing and sound like they might have come from Democratic political operatives or the liberal corner of the blogosphere:
Foreign policy under President Bush is run by a secretive "cabal" headed by Vice President Dick Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld. Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's dream of spreading democracy around the Middle East is misguided and could backfire badly.
Those, however, are the sentiments of two leading Republicans, both associated with the Bush administration, who've broken ranks in the last week to criticize the invasion of Iraq and other foreign ventures.
One is retired Army Col. Lawrence Wilkerson, who was chief of staff to Secretary of State Colin Powell. The other is Brent Scowcroft, a former national security adviser, close friend to President George H.W. Bush and mentor to Rice.
Their decision to abandon the bonds of party loyalty and speak their minds comes at a bad time for the president. Bush faces growing bipartisan unease on Capitol Hill about the Iraq war and the possibility that top aides could be indicted as early as this week in the investigation into the outing of CIA officer Valerie Plame.
Scowcroft, whose opposition to the Iraq invasion is no secret, went further in an article published Monday in The New Yorker magazine, going public with reservations that he has shared privately with reporters.
Of Bush's Middle East democracy drive, he said: "If you can do it, fine, but I don't think you can, and in the process of trying to do it you can make the Middle East a lot worse."
Wilkerson, in a speech last week, described seeing a dysfunctional foreign policy-making process, in which Rumsfeld and Cheney cut out other agencies to pursue their goals (what Wilkerson called a cabal). As a result, he said, "we have courted disaster in Iraq, in North Korea, in Iran."
Wilkerson is a longtime aide to Powell, who was frequently on the losing end of policy battles with Rumsfeld and Cheney in Bush's first term.
"Wilkerson is just the first blast of what's going to come out of (those associated with) the Powell State Department," predicted David Rothkopf, author of "Running the World," a recent history of the National Security Council.
Rothkopf said the two men and others may feel more empowered to speak out as support for Iraq policy sinks. "The president of the United States has never been more vulnerable," he said.
Powell himself has largely stayed quiet, although he broke with the White House earlier this month in backing a Senate ban on U.S. torture of military prisoners.
William Kristol, editor of the conservative Weekly Standard, said the public criticisms signal a rebirth of the dispute within the Republican Party between "idealists," who favor using U.S. power to remake the world, and "realists," who tend to deal with the world as it is.
That fault line, submerged after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, "is now re-emerging pretty vividly," Kristol said.
He added that the critiques are unlikely to affect Bush, who's well into his second term, but could presage debates in the 2008 presidential election contest.
Wilkerson didn't respond to requests for further comment. An aide said Scowcroft was traveling and couldn't be reached.
White House and State Department officials declined to respond to the two men's specific criticisms.
Sean McCormack, a spokesman for Rice, who was hired by Scowcroft during the first President Bush's administration, said: "Sure, there have been differences. I think that's only really natural and understandable. He's a friend and is going to remain a friend."
Scowcroft is quoted in The New Yorker article as being bewildered by Rice's conversion to Bush's zealous view of foreign policy and skeptical about the near-term likelihood of democracy in Arab states such as Syria and Egypt.
Democracy promotion is Bush and Rice's foreign policy priority, one they tout in virtually every speech.
Says Scowcroft: "This notion that inside every human being is the burning desire for freedom and liberty, much less democracy, is probably not the case."
But both Scowcroft and Wilkerson save their harshest criticism for Cheney, who has played an outsized but largely behind the scenes role in Bush's national security policy and was a key architect of the war in Iraq.
"The real anomaly in the administration is Cheney," Scowcroft says. "I consider Cheney a good friend—I've known him for 30 years. But Dick Cheney I don't know anymore."
Lee Ann McBride, Cheney's spokeswoman, said: "The vice president supports the president's agenda, and he believes that President Bush's leadership in foreign policy and work with our allies continues to make our citizens safer at home and abroad."
(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
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