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Don't Blame Me

Friday, December 10, 2004; Page A36

WITH PRESIDENT Bush's choices for a second-term Cabinet complete, a striking feature is the continuity of the national security and foreign policy lineup. The secretary of state leaves, but the national security adviser moves over to take his place, her deputy moves up to take hers, and the defense secretary stays put: No new blood there. It's understandable that a president might not want to change teams while war rages, but such continuity can have pitfalls. One is an absence of fresh thinking. Another is that Mr. Bush's principals will be so intent on proving their first-term decisions correct, or so intent on blaming others for what hasn't gone right, that they won't be open to the wisdom that might be on offer outside government or farther down their chains of command.

It's in that context that we were listening to Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld's comments this week. The one that got the most attention was his response Wednesday to a soldier in Kuwait who wanted to know why troops were being sent into Iraq without properly armored vehicles. "As you know, you go to war with the Army you have," Mr. Rumsfeld replied. "They're not the Army you might want or wish to have at a later time." A true statement, no doubt; and Mr. Rumsfeld went on to assure the soldier that the Army was sending better-protected vehicles to Iraq as quickly as it could. But the remark seemed to suggest that Mr. Rumsfeld himself bore no responsibility for how the Army had been equipped before the 2003 invasion; nor for the timing of that invasion; nor for the failure to predict the ferocious insurgency that has made the absence of armor so relevant.

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That same combination of breeziness and blame-passing was on display even more when Mr. Rumsfeld spoke to reporters while en route to Kuwait Monday. (Transcripts of both sessions are available at www.dod.gov.) Asked about first-term mistakes, Mr. Rumsfeld reflected on the failure to find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq and the failure to predict the insurgency, but even in the latter case, which might be thought to fall under the broad category of strategic thinking, the defense secretary seemed to pass the buck. "I don't think anyone would say that the intelligence left anyone with the impression that you'd be in the degree of insurgency you're in today," he said.

Even more remarkably, he shifted all blame for what many believe to have been a woefully inadequate troop commitment. "The big debate about the number of troops is one of those things that's really out of my control," he said. Out of the defense secretary's control? "I mean, everyone likes to assign responsibility to the top person and I guess that's fine," Mr. Rumsfeld explained. "But the number of troops we had for the invasion was the number of troops that General Franks and General Abizaid wanted." But reporting by Bob Woodward and others shows Mr. Rumsfeld ordering Gen. Tommy R. Franks to rewrite plans for Iraq to reduce the number of troops; the one general who said he thought more would be needed for postwar control, Army Chief of Staff Gen. Eric K. Shinseki, found himself unwanted in Mr. Rumsfeld's Pentagon.

On one level, Mr. Rumsfeld's distinctive reading of recent history may matter less than his commitment, restated eloquently during his trip this week, to help Iraqis and Afghans live in freedom. But in the past Mr. Rumsfeld's breeziness has masked serious errors. The postwar looting wasn't just a matter of the untidiness of freedom; it struck a grievous blow at the U.S. occupation. Carelessness toward the Geneva Conventions precipitated a hugely damaging scandal. The insufficient troop levels allowed the insurgency to gain traction.

Now Mr. Rumsfeld says: "It's a violent country. It has been in the past. It very likely will be in the future." Insouciant, charming, worldly-wise. But if someone else is always to blame -- or if no one is -- how much confidence can the country have in decisions going forward?

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