Of the many voices raised on the subject of Iraq, none was more startling than that of Condoleezza Rice, President Bush's national security adviser. She made the moral case for preemptive war in World War II terms that were unnervingly reminiscent of Dean Rusk at the height of Vietnam. The bottom line: "We certainly do not have the luxury of doing nothing."
Her remarks, delivered over the BBC, caused considerable flapping of wings at the State Department, where Colin Powell is trying to turn down the volume of the din on Iraq. She rattled the teacups at 10 Downing Street, where Tony Blair is frantically trying to calm balky cabinet ministers and a restive population.
Nobody expected back talk from Bush's foreign policy nanny on his most ambitious military plan. Her job is to remind him of facts he may have overlooked and to chaperone his meetings with foreign leaders. The only woman to be admitted to the locker room of the Bush national security team is obliged to be one of the boys. But for her to speak so strongly was out of character. She has been the soul of discretion and circumspection, nothing like flamboyant predecessors such as Henry Kissinger, a temperamental publicity hound, or Zbigniew Brzezinski, an indefatigable infighter.
Europeans speculated that Condi Rice had been sent out to goad the sissy Europeans into action. Her broadside was not well received in the British Parliament. A Labor MP named Alice Mahon replied in outrage: "Who can possibly argue that there is anything moral about killing other people's children? It is outrageous that a representative of the United States government, and a woman, should suggest that there is."
"And a woman" leaps out from Mahon's text. Mahon must surely remember Margaret Thatcher, a most belligerent sister. Besides, it is a politically incorrect and even retrograde position, although it dies hard. Women, after all, know best the hard labor required to bring children into the world and to bring them up so they are a credit to all concerned. They are reluctant to send them out to die.
Men have a tendency to get carried away by things, particularly technological things. Left unattended, they will go into raptures about the throw-weight of nuclear weapons and speak casually of "collateral damage," a term women translate into civilian casualties. During the Vietnam War, how often did we hear about the longing for a female leavening of the male mentality that was eager for news about body counts.
But, say the feminists, we mustn't generalize in this fashion or condemn our sisters to pacifism. We should want women in high places in the interest of equality, not to civilize men. They can be hawks or doves. I learned my lesson the hard way a long time ago, when Bella Abzug, the militant feminist congresswoman, called me up to announce the founding of the women's movement. She explained the wonderful effect they would have on benighted public policy, the resolutions they were ready to pass. Would they pass one against the war, I asked -- Vietnam was raging at the time. Bella set me straight. No, she said, "we have a lot of Republicans, and they don't want to hurt Nixon."
I said, and I realize now I should hang my head, "Well, what's the point?"
Condi Rice was overshadowed by another predecessor, Brent Scowcroft, a George Bush I intimate, who advised Bush II in a Wall Street Journal op-ed to go easy when contemplating an attack on Baghdad. It would ruin his war against terror, Scowcroft warned. Was he speaking for his old boss? Washington feverishly wonders.
The chancellor of Germany, Gerhard Schroeder, said "nein" in no uncertain terms to joining the fun in Iraq, and he was spoken to by our ambassador in Berlin.
Another dissenter was Vladimir Putin, Bush's erstwhile pal and partner, who stabbed him in the back by announcing a large trade agreement with the evil Saddam Hussein. Who will speak to him? One outspoken speaker, Richard Perle -- the generalissimo of the Cakewalk Corps, that ferocious band of civilians who have never worn their country's uniform but wish to lead it into war -- has obviously been spoken to. As Condi Rice's cannonade was reverberating through Europe, the usually fiery and facile Perle turned up on TV, for once tentative and even diffident. He said Americans would go in only to help Iraqis who would rise up against tyrant Hussein. Forget those smart weapons, the special forces. We would just be an auxiliary force, there to help.
Condi Rice has served us well, although possibly in a way she didn't expect. Her moral outburst served to make the point that in all the racket, there is one great silence -- from the man we most need to hear from, the president, and it's time for him to speak up. He's supposed to be the man with moral clarity.