As the American government approaches a fateful decision on our course of action in the Persian Gulf, the character, judgment and experience of the key players offer the best assurance that the decision will be made well. It is worth noting that most of those involved would not be in the meetings if the principle behind the proposal for "term limits," now gaining such popularity, prevailed.
As readers of this column know, I have not been reluctant to criticize President Bush and his associates for the erratic and ineffectual way they have dealt with far too many domestic-policy issues in the past two years. More such criticisms will be heard in the future, I expect.
But it is almost impossible to imagine a more sober, serious, calm, cautious, rational and prudent set of people meeting on the question of war or peace in the Persian Gulf than those this president has assembled. Individually and collectively, they measure up to the highest standards.
Starting with George Bush himself, they bring a wealth of personal experience in international diplomacy and national-security affairs and great depth of personal knowledge of the other world leaders with whom they are dealing. The secretary of state, James A. Baker III; the secretary of defense, Dick Cheney; the national security adviser, Brent Scowcroft; and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Colin L. Powell, are, without exception, men who have earned the confidence of their peers in our government and in the governments of the many countries with whom we are working in this crisis.
The group may lack anyone with the wide-ranging intellectual and strategic sense of a Henry Kissinger. But it is blessedly free from the vaulting ambitions, the raging egos and the private score-settling agendas that have cluttered and demeaned national-security debates in most administrations from Harry Truman's through Ronald Reagan's.
No false bravado or foolish pride will influence them to rash action. No lack of confidence or experience will keep them from doing what their best judgment tells them needs to be done.
No less important to the country's confidence is the fact that these same qualities of judgment, character and experience are to be found in the leaders of the legislative branch of government who will be crucial in the decisions that lie ahead.
The most obvious examples are the leaders of the Democratic opposition in Congress, which in this case truly is trying to behave as "the loyal opposition." Speaker of the House Thomas S. Foley (D-Wash.) is a political protege and former staff member of the late Sen. Henry M. (Scoop) Jackson of Washington.
For three decades as an increasingly influential legislator, Jackson preached and practiced the view that when national security is involved, partisanship not only takes second place, it has no place in the debate. That is why his support and advice were sought and cherished by presidents of both parties.
Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell (D-Maine) is a political protege and former staff member of Edmund S. Muskie, who served the nation as secretary of state and for many years before that as an influential member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. No less than Foley, Mitchell has been schooled for years to take the broadest conception of the national interest into his discussions with the president in these crucial world issues.
If there is to be a broad debate when Congress returns on the next steps in our Persian Gulf policy -- a healthy and desirable process, I strongly believe -- the influential voices will belong to people of equally seasoned judgment -- senators like Sam Nunn (D-Ga.), Richard Lugar (R-Ind.) and John Warner (R-Va.) and representatives like Les Aspin (D-Wisc.) and Lee Hamilton (D-Ind.).
I would challenge anyone to list another dozen people they would prefer to see engaged in this decision-making than those who now hold these positions of leadership in the executive and legislative branch. And I would urge those who are selling the "term limit" panacea to consider if the principle of limited tenure in government office is really one they want to impose on a nation carrying the burdens of world leadership that now rest on the United States.
The youngest person I have mentioned, Dick Cheney, has 21 years of elective and appointive federal service. George Bush has 24; Colin Powell, 32; Brent Scowcroft, 32; Jim Baker, 12.
The proposals now gathering steam in the states would generally permit no more than eight to 12 years as the maximum service in the House or Senate. Does anyone really think the nation would be better served if Tom Foley and Lee Hamilton, with their 26 years, Les Aspin, with 20 years, Sam Nunn with 18 years, Dick Lugar with 14 years, John Warner with 12 years and George Mitchell with 10 years were all to be replaced in these discussions by men and women who had entered Congress within the past decade?
There are many able people in the junior ranks whose rise to leadership will be welcome. But I, for one, am grateful that it is the grown-ups who are making the tough calls in this situation.