On Point

U.S. Good Cops - Bad Cops

by Austin Bay
November 13, 2002

Good cop and bad cop. That tag team effort is the oldest game in public politics.

Street gang leaders and saints understand the dynamics. The schtick works because it strikes deep chords in the psyche, the appeal of comfort, the appreciation of threat. Soft talk or big stick, carrot and stick, accept the velvet glove or face the mailed fist. The game's particularly successful if the good cop is smooth -- perhaps chubby and charming, with concerned eyebrows -- and the bad cop growls convincingly, at both 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 with chubby 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 basic strategy or fundamentally misreads the administration -- or relies on gossip for his or her leads instead of common sense.

Sure, personalities clash, but when adults are in charge personalities aren't policy. That's a big change for Beltway observers who made their bones during the Clinton Administration. In that once-upon-a-time, Bill Clinton was the policy, the latest poll his position paper, the next news cycle his geo-strategy.

The elite national media's failure to appreciate this obvious change -- replacing adolescents with adults, moving from incessant tactical politics to grand strategy -- helps explain their jaw-dropping surprise at the mid-term election results.

Good Cop Colin and Bad Cop Don are both political big shots, but they know their primary mission at the moment is to fight and win The War on Terror.

At times, however, the oldest game can become a tough act to sell. Caricatures of soft "negotiator" (why, Powell's so rational, almost a Democrat) and hard "superhawk" (Rumsfeld's dangerous, I tell you, a real Republican) may feed Georgetown cocktail party chitchat and shape Peter Jennings' world news, but they don't sell American policy and achieve critical strategic objectives. Selling and achieving require enormous skill, able troops and deployed aircraft carriers, intensive diplomacy and a steely persistence.

But to really sell it -- to sell a cynical planet with a calculating 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 and personalities. Precincts matter. Pocketbooks matter. There are times in history 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 and campaigned vigorously. The smart guys said the president had made a tactical error, he was risking political capital. The smart guys missed the big picture, analyzing political tactics and missing the strategic moment.

George W. Bush is a president fighting a war, and in this election, he let the American people know that, firsthand.

Votes are a measure of national will, and America's national will to persevere is the common spine of both the Good Cop and Bad Cop. The chief political leader had to demonstrate national political will, out of the mishmash of potholes and pocketbooks, and do so despite the doubt and friction of a national media that still in large measure fails to come to grips with the long-haul challenges and consequences of 9/11.

The UN Security Council certainly concluded the mid-term election was about the war, voting 15 to zip to impose a new inspections regimen on Iraq.

From the get go, I've bet lining up the UN was part of the Administration's plan. It's a global forum, and The War on Terror is a global war. An attack on the World Trade Center signals an attack on the world that built a UN. Hence Bush's warning in September that unless the UN responded aggressively to Iraq's failure to comply with Security Council resolutions it would become irrelevant.

The Good Cop is demanding thorough inspections. The Bad Cop is preparing his bombs. Either way, Saddam has little choice.

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