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David Ignatius

Scapegoat in Chief

By David Ignatius
Tuesday, December 21, 2004; Page A25

"I think Rumsfeld may be not too long for this world. . . . Let's dump him." The date was April 7, 1971; the speaker was President Richard M. Nixon. And despite Nixon's muttering about "the Rumsfeld problem" -- which in this instance was that Rummy was too critical of the Vietnam War -- the ambitious young White House aide kept his job.

The anecdote, recounted in journalist James Mann's history of the Bush national security team, "Rise of the Vulcans," illustrates several telling facts about this month's leading Washington villain. Rumsfeld is a contrarian whose arrogant manner has made him powerful enemies over the years; he's also a survivor whose political obituary has often been written prematurely.

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My guess is that Rumsfeld may finally be near the end of his nine lives. It would be unlike President Bush to dismiss him right now when he's under fire. If anything, the recent Rummy-bashing probably strengthened the president's tactical support for his defense secretary -- just as press leaks that John Snow was about to be dumped probably helped the Treasury secretary keep his job. But despite Bush's public embrace of Rumsfeld yesterday, it's hard to imagine him lasting four more years.

The defense secretary has become the symbol of an accident-prone Iraq policy -- and even more, of the administration's refusal to admit or learn from its mistakes. The man who bears ultimate responsibility for Iraq policy isn't Rumsfeld, of course, but Bush. But the president has just won reelection, and obviously isn't about to fire himself. So Rummy makes a convenient scapegoat in chief.

Rumsfeld's situation recalls that of an earlier defense secretary -- Robert S. McNamara -- who struggled with a war that proved far more complicated and painful than expected. The two men share several traits that are at once strengths and weaknesses: a brilliant, intimidating intellect that comes across to many people as arrogance; a skepticism about the Pentagon's encrusted layers of power and past practice, which angers the military brass; a reluctance to play the usual Pentagon game of log-rolling and mutual back-scratching on Capitol Hill, which leaves few political defenders; and, most of all, a bold gambler's decision to go to war without fully understanding the complexities of the battlefield.

McNamara is hated by a generation of military officers who blame him for plunging the Army into a failed ground war; it's too early to know whether Rumsfeld's war will turn out as badly as Vietnam did, or whether he'll have the permanent enmity of the military, but he's certainly on his way. Similarly, McNamara and Rummy have a knack for attracting congressional criticism within their own party. Last week's parade of Republican senators calling for Rumsfeld's resignation -- John McCain, Chuck Hagel, Susan Collins, Trent Lott -- was reminiscent of the pressure from conservative Democrats on the Senate Armed Services Committee who were lobbying LBJ to dump McNamara in 1967.

I've always thought the demonization of McNamara was unfair, or at least misapplied. McNamara's efforts to modernize the military, like Rumsfeld's, were on target. Claims that he prevented the military from winning the Vietnam War are mostly myth; in truth, the military never presented McNamara with a coherent strategy for victory against an elusive guerrilla enemy, as Gen. Bruce Palmer acknowledged in his superb history of the war.

Many of the recent attacks on Rumsfeld similarly miss the point. He is faulted for not having enough troops in Iraq, for example. Perhaps that was true during and immediately after the war, but it isn't now. The role of the additional troops we're sending today is mainly to protect the other U.S. troops there. More American soldiers mean more targets, not more security for Iraqis. Additional soldiers definitely are needed, but they should be Iraqis. The troop debate is partly a rear-action battle against Rumseld's ideas about military "transformation." Advocates of the old, heavyweight Army have never forgiven Rummy for advocating lighter, more mobile forces, but Rumsfeld was correct.

Like McNamara, Rumsfeld has failed to communicate effectively with a war-traumatized nation. There were many things he could have said when questioned in Kuwait about the slow pace of armoring Humvees, because the Pentagon has been working hard in recent months to fix this problem. But in seeming to dismiss an enlisted man's criticism, Rumsfeld came across as saying, in McNamara fashion: You're not smart enough to understand, soldier. Like it, or lump it.

Rumsfeld gets many of the little things right, but he has gotten the big thing wrong. Like McNamara, he realized that the war he had advocated was turning into a "long, hard slog." And like McNamara, he was unable to find a way to alter strategy in the midst of that conflict. Like McNamara, he will probably become a political casualty of the war he helped set in motion.

davidignatius@washpost.com


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