In 1991, Dick Cheney and Colin Powell were riding high on their Persian Gulf War triumph. More than four million New Yorkers poured into the streets to cheer the ticker-tape parade they led up Broadway.
“The most effective combination we’ve seen in this country since Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig,” gushed one Republican lawmaker.
President George H.W. Bush basked in a 74 percent approval rating, and his two top military advisers, Cheney as secretary of defense and Powell as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, were a perfectly unified team.
“We thought so much alike,” Powell said, “we could finish each other’s sentences.”
A decade later, Bush’s son George W. won the White House himself, with Cheney as his uniquely powerful vice president. As his first Cabinet appointment, Bush 43 named Powell his secretary of state.
But this time, the two friends were almost immediately at each other’s throats.
In “The Great Rift” (Henry Holt), out Tuesday, James Mann traces the parallel careers of Cheney and Powell, partners who descended into rancorous infighting that harmed them both — and, Mann contends, the nation as well — in a battle that exposed foreign-policy fault lines that Donald Trump would later highlight in his own rise to power.
The two were always an odd couple. Cheney, the conservative true believer and taciturn media foe from Wyoming, was a relentless ideologue. “He really didn’t give a damn if people didn’t like him,” said one former aide. “He was really an un-politician politician.”
Powell, the affable press darling from The Bronx, was an astute military officer steeped in conventional Washington wisdom. Or, as Cheney once sneered, “attuned to public approval”— for him, Mann notes, “the ultimate insult.”
Bush had chosen the seasoned Cheney as “a running mate who would help him govern.” That gave Cheney the freedom to dominate the administration’s decision-making as he pleased, without any of the formal departmental responsibilities that constrained mere Cabinet secretaries.
After the horrific terror strikes of September 11, 2001, Cheney pushed hard for all-out assaults, unilateral ones if necessary, on Afghanistan and Iraq. Powell urged caution and diplomacy, insisting on negotiations with Iraq’s Saddam Hussein and on the need to persuade allies to join a “global war on terror.”
The in-house bickering went on for months, with Cheney repeatedly gaining the upper hand. Powell, Mann writes, “was spectacularly ineffective at registering dissent.”
As Bush inched closer to launching the Iraq War, he ordered the popular Powell to win the blessing of the United Nations Security Council with a speech in February 2003.
Powell had only a week to prepare for this major address. But he pooh-poohed all three position papers that had been prepared by Cheney’s top aide, Lewis “Scooter” Libby.
Instead, he composed a rushed rationale based on the CIA’s National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) report about Saddam Hussein’s supposed stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction — a paper that turned out to be badly flawed.
Within weeks, as the Iraq War degenerated into chaos and no WMD were found, Powell realized he’d presented a bogus case for the conflict. By July, he was being pilloried in the press for exaggerating the evidence.
The lack of WMD was a blow to the entire administration. But Powell took the failure personally.
“It’s a blot,” he said in 2005. “It was painful. It’s painful now.”
The internal finger-pointing in the wake of the WMD debacle led directly to the outing of Valerie Plame, a CIA agent whose husband had criticized Bush’s anti-Iraq evidence. A special prosecutor was soon eyeing Scooter Libby as the suspected leaker. The investigation dragged on for two years, tarring Cheney in the process.
Months after Libby was indicted for lying to the FBI, a Powell aide, Richard Armitage, finally confessed to being the real culprit. When Cheney learned that Powell had known of Armitage’s guilt from the beginning, but had never revealed that key fact to the White House, his enmity for his former friend was sealed.
In 2011, both Cheney and Powell were invited to George H.W. Bush’s presidential library in College Station, Texas, for a ceremony marking the 20th anniversary of the Persian Gulf War. Neither of them wanted to participate if the other planned to attend. “That was a murderously hard negotiation,” said Ryan Crocker of Texas A&M University, host of the event.
Eventually Crocker talked them into it. A private plane was arranged to ferry Powell, Cheney and a few other administration alumni from Washington to Texas.
“They were hiding behind their newspapers — not even a hello,” Crocker said. “That’s when I realized how much they loathed each other.”
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