by Austin Bay
November 13, 2002
Good cop and bad cop. That tag team effort is the oldest game inpublic politics.
Street gang leaders and saints understand the dynamics. Theschtick works because it strikes deep chords in the psyche, the appeal ofcomfort, the appreciation of threat. Soft talk or big stick, carrot andstick, accept the velvet glove or face the mailed fist. The game'sparticularly successful if the good cop is smooth -- perhaps chubby andcharming, with concerned eyebrows -- and the bad cop growls convincingly, atboth reporters and enemy generals.
Colin Powell and Donald Rumsfeld have the cop game down pat.Here's the Beltway playbill: Powell is Good, Rumsfeld is Bad. Deal withchubby ole Colin, or Bad Don's bringing his Green Berets and B-52s.
Any pundit who thinks Colin Powell is outfoxing and undermining"dangerous" Bush Administration hawks either has little feel for basicstrategy or fundamentally misreads the administration -- or relies on gossipfor his or her leads instead of common sense.
Sure, personalities clash, but when adults are in chargepersonalities aren't policy. That's a big change for Beltway observers whomade their bones during the Clinton Administration. In thatonce-upon-a-time, Bill Clinton was the policy, the latest poll his positionpaper, the next news cycle his geo-strategy.
The elite national media's failure to appreciate this obviouschange -- replacing adolescents with adults, moving from incessant tacticalpolitics to grand strategy -- helps explain their jaw-dropping surprise atthe mid-term election results.
Good Cop Colin and Bad Cop Don are both political big shots, butthey know their primary mission at the moment is to fight and win The War onTerror.
At times, however, the oldest game can become a tough act tosell. Caricatures of soft "negotiator" (why, Powell's so rational, almost aDemocrat) and hard "superhawk" (Rumsfeld's dangerous, I tell you, a realRepublican) may feed Georgetown cocktail party chitchat and shape PeterJennings' world news, but they don't sell American policy and achievecritical strategic objectives. Selling and achieving require enormous skill,able troops and deployed aircraft carriers, intensive diplomacy and a steelypersistence.
But to really sell it -- to sell a cynical planet with acalculating China, a hypocritical France, a wounded Russia and a fractious,frightened world on the fact that America means to see the war through --requires American votes.
Welcome to the mid-term elections.
Agreed, every election is a mosaic of local issues andpersonalities. Precincts matter. Pocketbooks matter. There are times inhistory when potholes are the decisive issue.
However, this post-9/11 era is not one of those moments.
That's why the commander-in-chief put himself on the line andcampaigned vigorously. The smart guys said the president had made a tacticalerror, he was risking political capital. The smart guys missed the bigpicture, analyzing political tactics and missing the strategic moment.
George W. Bush is a president fighting a war, and in thiselection, he let the American people know that, firsthand.
Votes are a measure of national will, and America's nationalwill to persevere is the common spine of both the Good Cop and Bad Cop. Thechief political leader had to demonstrate national political will, out ofthe mishmash of potholes and pocketbooks, and do so despite the doubt andfriction of a national media that still in large measure fails to come togrips with the long-haul challenges and consequences of 9/11.
The UN Security Council certainly concluded the mid-termelection was about the war, voting 15 to zip to impose a new inspectionsregimen on Iraq.
From the get go, I've bet lining up the UN was part of theAdministration's plan. It's a global forum, and The War on Terror is aglobal war. An attack on the World Trade Center signals an attack on theworld that built a UN. Hence Bush's warning in September that unless the UNresponded aggressively to Iraq's failure to comply with Security Councilresolutions it would become irrelevant.
The Good Cop is demanding thorough inspections. The Bad Cop ispreparing his bombs. Either way, Saddam has little choice.