By Dana Milbank
Wednesday, November 30, 2005
Last weekend, while other Americans were watching football and eating leftover turkey, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld ended the Iraqi insurgency.
It was easy, really: He declared that the insurgents would, henceforth, no longer be called insurgents.
"Over the weekend, I thought to myself, 'You know, that gives them a greater legitimacy than they seem to merit,' " Rumsfeld, at a Pentagon briefing yesterday, said of his ban on the I-word. "It was an epiphany," he added, throwing his hands in the air.
Encouraging reporters to consult their dictionaries, the defense secretary said: "These people aren't trying to promote something other than disorder, and to take over that country and turn it into a caliphate and then spread it around the world. This is a group of people who don't merit the word 'insurgency,' I think."
Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Peter Pace, standing at Rumsfeld's side, evidently didn't get the memo about the wording change. Describing combat in Iraq, he paused and said, "I have to use the word 'insurgent' because I can't think of a better word right now."
" 'Enemies of the legitimate Iraqi government' -- how's that?" Rumsfeld proposed.
"What the secretary said," Pace continued, to laughter. But Rumsfeld's new description -- ELIG, if you prefer an acronym -- didn't stick with the general. Smiling, he uttered the forbidden word again while discussing explosive devices.
The secretary recoiled in mock horror. "Sorry, sir," Pace explained. "I'm not trainable today."
It was not the first time the defense secretary sought to reorder the world according to his tastes. Also not for the first time, the world wasn't following his plan. This summer Rumsfeld tried to change the "war on terror" to the "global struggle against violent extremism," or GSAVE. President Bush ended that plan.
This time, it's the Joint Chiefs chairman, still new to the job, who isn't marching to Rumsfeld's orders.
When UPI's Pam Hess asked about torture by Iraqi authorities, Rumsfeld replied that "obviously, the United States does not have a responsibility" other than to voice disapproval.
But Pace had a different view. "It is the absolute responsibility of every U.S. service member, if they see inhumane treatment being conducted, to intervene, to stop it," the general said.
Rumsfeld interjected: "I don't think you mean they have an obligation to physically stop it; it's to report it."
But Pace meant what he said. "If they are physically present when inhumane treatment is taking place, sir, they have an obligation to try to stop it," he said, firmly.
Rumsfeld was defense secretary in 2003 when the United States invaded Iraq, and he has remained in that job for the occupation of the past 32 months. But in his briefing yesterday, he at times sounded as if he were merely observing the Iraq war on television.
On a question about banning white phosphorous on the battlefield, Rumsfeld turned to his briefing partner and asked, "General Pace?"
Asked how widespread the abuse in Iraq was, he replied: "I am not going to be judging it from 4,000 miles away." Asked about the "uneven performance" of Iraqi police, Rumsfeld pointed out that the police until recently "had been reporting up through the Department of State."
Reuters's Charlie Aldinger asked about "uniformed death squads" in Iraq. Rumsfeld replied: "I'm not going to comment on hypothetical questions."
When Aldinger protested that the question was not hypothetical, Rumsfeld replied that Iraq is "a sovereign country" and suggested the death-squad allegations could be politically motivated. "I just don't know," he said. "I can only talk about what I know." With an exaggerated shrug, he added: "That's life."
If such deflections did not make things clear enough, the secretary spelled out his philosophy of responsibility in a podium-thumping soliloquy.
"We have an orientation that tends to make us think that everything is our responsibility and that we should be doing this," he said. "It is the Iraqis' country, 28 million of them. They are perfectly capable of running that country. . . . Our problem is that anytime something needs to be done, we have a feeling we should rush in and fill the vacuum and do it ourselves."
Fortunately for the Iraqis, things are going well there, in Rumsfeld's view. He rattled off a series of improving statistics -- "seven operational divisions and 31 operational brigade headquarters"-- accompanied by a collection of favorable descriptions: "Largely peaceful . . . liberating and securing . . . solid progress . . . positive . . . a darn good job."
"The strategy is working, and we should stick to it," Rumsfeld judged.
Particularly now that the insurgents have become ELIGs.