Armitage, Powell Lack Moral Courage

There are many types of courage. There is the spark of courage that drives a person to perform an act that the majority of people avoid: a paratrooper steps into a thousand-foot void, a firefighter drags a hose into a burning building, a soldier dashes into an alleyway under intense fire to bring a wounded comrade to safety. This is physical courage of the moment. The fire in the gut that overrides caution and the normal concerns for self-preservation. Possession of this kind of physical courage is rare, and is critical to some professions. When found it is highly valued.

Another type of courage is what may be termed the courage to endure. This is a quiet, definitely un-spectacular, mostly unobserved form of courage. This is what drives soldiers to complete the grinding Ranger training or Special Forces Q course, gives SEALs the ability to last through Hell Week, carries Airmen through PJ school, and gives Marines the stamina to make it through Force Recon training. It is the ability a person has deep inside their psyche to manage to complete a task or mission despite unrelenting pressures. It can be found in many professions including those such as housewife, child, and parent that society does not usually categorize as “courageous.” The ability to endure comes in many forms, mostly hidden, but is of enormous worth to those few who possess it.

Perhaps the most difficult form of courage to acquire and maintain is moral courage. This means that a person does the right thing, regardless of the pain that is inflicted upon him for doing so. This is the courage to take responsibility for an act or an omission even if — especially if — silence will get you off the hook. Moral courage means facing bitterly unpleasant consequences squarely in the face because you know that it is the proper thing to do. St. Peter said it well, “if you suffer for doing good and endure it then you are commendable before God. To this you are called…” With moral courage the tests never cease.

Moral courage is exceedingly rare. We learn to duck responsibility by transferring blame. We learn to dissemble and tell “white lies” if it makes our life a bit easier. We keep silent and assure our conscience that “nobody will know.” It takes a steel backbone and a firm mind to admit error, to admit before peers and critics that we made mistakes. But as rare as it is to find, we expect to find it above all in our elected and appointed public officials. Particularly at the top, and most especially from two men who matured in a military environment where moral courage and personal responsibility are taught as an article of faith.

That is why it was such a shock to learn that two former Bush administration officials were singularly lacking in moral courage. Men who ought to have been paradigms for integrity betrayed the trust given them by the president and by the public. By their silence and refusal to step forward and admit responsibility or knowledge of key elements in the recent Wilson-Plame scandal, Colin Powell and Richard Armitage have been sadly revealed as devoid of moral courage. This is a terrible disappointment to those of us who knew these men personally or by reputation for decades.

It is one thing to disagree on policy. Many officials see policy matters different than their principal. It happens all the time. There are built-in mechanisms for expressing disagreement. When confronted with a dilemma on policy the choices are fairly clear: make your point. If overruled then you can either subjugate your objection and carry out the policy or you can resign. Those are the morally correct choices. The option of sabotaging the policy and undermining the trust that is imparted to you by those above and below you in the institution and among the general public who rely on you to perform tasks assigned by elected officials, this is not a valid, honorable option. Yet both men, long schooled in the tradition of honesty, courage, and leadership selected that sordid option.

Richard Armitage is a Naval Academy graduate where he learned but appears to have dismissed the rule that a Midshipman does not “lie, cheat, or steal.” In this case he did all three. He lied by his silence and unwillingness to admit responsibility. He cheated in that he was openly disloyal to his ultimate boss by skewing public opinion about those close to the president and ultimately on the man himself. And he stole from Scooter Libby not only the egregiously large legal fees that Libby must pay but something even more precious: a reputation and a career. How can Armitage even begin to repay those?

Personally it is tough for me to write these things. Years ago when I was on the State Department-Defense Department exchange program I was subjected to a harsh, unjustified bureaucratic attack by my Foreign Service Officer boss who did everything possible to humiliate me in the institution and render my work ineffective. Among others Armitage came to the rescue through a harsh phone call to our overall boss telling him in no-nonsense tones that if the treatment continued he would pull me back to Defense where “we can use his talent” and close the position for good. I appreciated his top cover then and am still grateful for his intervention. But where was that kind of moral courage when it came to regulating his own behavior? Apparently missing.

And what can one say about Colin Powell? The Army’s golden boy, White House intern, four-star general, first African-American (or Jamaican-American if you will) to be secretary of State. Combat veteran. Survived and prospered in the brutal bureaucratic in-fighting that characterizes government at the top in Washington. Why does a man with those credentials sit on information that with a single phone call — a mere phrase — he can alleviate a most egregious injustice to a fellow serving public official?

The waste in money — how many millions is the Fitzgerald special prosecutor going to cost taxpayers? — is horrid. Even worse is the completely unwarranted damage to Libby, Karl Rove, and the president. Most unacceptable is the fact that both Powell and Armitage stood mute when a very damaging — intentionally damaging — story was circulated that harmed the American image abroad, crippled the president, distracted scores of people from their duties when they ought to have been focused on more important issues, and gave a morale boost to our nation’s enemies. And incredibly, all this while their country was at war.

Have the terrorists in Iraq and Afghanistan gained strength watching America fight over fabricated issues? Has Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in Iran profited from the internecine squabbling inside America? These are all indirect results, unintended consequences of action or lack thereof, if you will. It is a classic illustration that failure of moral courage casts ripples far stronger than lack of physical courage. And it points up that no matter what you have gone through previously as a human being, no matter how many times you have been tested, that the one time that you are found wanting can ruin lives and will haunt you for the remainder of your life.

Both men violated their country’s trust. They must answer for their appalling failure of moral courage. And at the least they owe an apology to Scooter Libby, Karl Rove, George Bush, and to the American people who trusted them.