The Defense Secretary We Have
"As you know, you go to war with the Army you have. They're not the Army you might want or wish to have at a later time."
-- Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld,
in a town hall meeting with soldiers
at Camp Buehring in Kuwait, Dec. 8.
Actually, we have a pretty terrific Army. It's performed a lot better in this war than the secretary of defense has. President Bush has nonetheless decided to stick for now with the defense secretary we have, perhaps because he doesn't want to make a change until after the Jan. 30 Iraqi elections. But surely Don Rumsfeld is not the defense secretary Bush should want to have for the remainder of his second term.
Contrast the magnificent performance of our soldiers with the arrogant buck-passing of Rumsfeld. Begin with the rest of his answer to Spec. Thomas Wilson of the Tennessee Army National Guard:
"Since the Iraq conflict began, the Army has been pressing ahead to produce the armor necessary at a rate that they believe -- it's a greatly expanded rate from what existed previously, but a rate that they believe is the rate that is all that can be accomplished at this moment. I can assure you that General Schoomaker and the leadership in the Army and certainly General Whitcomb are sensitive to the fact that not every vehicle has the degree of armor that would be desirable for it to have, but that they're working at it at a good clip."
So the Army is in charge. "They" are working at it. Rumsfeld? He happens to hang out in the same building: "I've talked a great deal about this with a team of people who've been working on it hard at the Pentagon. . . . And that is what the Army has been working on." Not "that is what we have been working on." Rather, "that is what the Army has been working on." The buck stops with the Army.
At least the topic of those conversations in the Pentagon isn't boring. Indeed, Rumsfeld assured the troops who have been cobbling together their own armor, "It's interesting." In fact, "if you think about it, you can have all the armor in the world on a tank and a tank can be blown up. And you can have an up-armored humvee and it can be blown up." Good point. Why have armor at all? Incidentally, can you imagine if John Kerry had made such a statement a couple of months ago? It would have been (rightly) a topic of scorn and derision among my fellow conservatives, and not just among conservatives.
Perhaps Rumsfeld simply had a bad day. But then, what about his statement earlier last week, when asked about troop levels? "The big debate about the number of troops is one of those things that's really out of my control." Really? Well, "the number of troops we had for the invasion was the number of troops that General Franks and General Abizaid wanted."
Leave aside the fact that the issue is not "the number of troops we had for the invasion" but rather the number of troops we have had for postwar stabilization. Leave aside the fact that Gen. Tommy Franks had projected that he would need a quarter-million troops on the ground for that task -- and that his civilian superiors had mistakenly promised him that tens of thousands of international troops would be available. Leave aside the fact that Rumsfeld has only grudgingly and belatedly been willing to adjust even a little bit to realities on the ground since April 2003. And leave aside the fact that if our generals have been under pressure not to request more troops in Iraq for fear of stretching the military too thin, this is a consequence of Rumsfeld's refusal to increase the size of the military after Sept. 11.
In any case, decisions on troop levels in the American system of government are not made by any general or set of generals but by the civilian leadership of the war effort. Rumsfeld acknowledged this last week, after a fashion: "I mean, everyone likes to assign responsibility to the top person and I guess that's fine." Except he fails to take responsibility.
All defense secretaries in wartime have, needless to say, made misjudgments. Some have stubbornly persisted in their misjudgments. But have any so breezily dodged responsibility and so glibly passed the buck?
In Sunday's New York Times, John F. Burns quoted from the weekly letter to the families of his troops by Lt. Col. Mark A. Smith, an Indiana state trooper who now commands the 2nd Battalion, 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit, stationed just south of Baghdad:
"Ask yourself, how in a land of extremes, during times of insanity, constantly barraged by violence, and living in conditions comparable to the stone ages, your marines can maintain their positive attitude, their high spirit, and their abundance of compassion?" Col. Smith's answer: "They defend a nation unique in all of history: One of principle, not personality; one of the rule of law, not landed gentry; one where rights matter, not privilege or religion or color or creed. . . . They are United States Marines, representing all that is best in soldierly virtues."
These soldiers deserve a better defense secretary than the one we have.
The writer is editor of the Weekly Standard.