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Let Rumsfeld Go

By Richard Cohen
Tuesday, December 6, 2005

Subjecting the newly declassified White House "National Strategy for Victory in Iraq" to a cynically inspired computer search, I find that the name "Donald Rumsfeld" is missing from the document's 35 pages. A reasonable person would be confounded by this. How can we have "Victory in Iraq" if the man in command has already brought us defeat?

"Defeat" may be too strong a word, but if so, that's only for the moment. If, in fact, U.S. troops pull out of Iraq anytime before their mission is accomplished -- the plan of some Democrats and the wish of a few Republicans -- then defeat is surely what this debacle will be called. Even if that does not happen, any victory that comes three years and more than 2,000 U.S. military deaths later than promised cannot be considered a triumph. Call it what you will, but at the very least it's a tragedy.

Yet the man who has had prime responsibility for Iraq, for planning for the war, waging it and then occupying the country, remains precisely what he has been all this time -- the head of the American military, the secretary of defense, the very honorable (but not very capable) Donald Rumsfeld. His mistakes, miscalculations and arrogant dismissal of dissent have cost American (and Iraqi) lives and prolonged the conflict. If there has been a worse secretary of defense, it could only be Robert McNamara. History has hung Vietnam around his neck like a noose.

Similarly, Iraq will be Rumsfeld's constant companion. He will be faulted for insisting on fighting the war on the cheap -- in terms of both manpower and money. He did not bring enough troops to the task, and when one of his senior generals, the Army chief of staff, Eric K. Shinseki, warned before the war that the occupation would require "something on the order of several hundred thousand soldiers," he was quickly steered to his next assignment, a retirement community. A four-star had been humbled, and all down the line the brass got the message: Stick with the program.

That program was Rumsfeld's. Early on it meant that the Bush administration eschewed "nation-building," which was some sort of do-gooder enterprise favored by the dreamy Clinton people. Rumsfeld gave a speech titled "Beyond 'Nation-Building,' " which said the United States was out of that line of work. Unfortunately, it is precisely what the United States needed to do in Iraq. The Pentagon left it to others.

Under Rumsfeld's plan, the United States never had enough troops on the ground -- still doesn't, actually. It was Rumsfeld who thought the United States would get into Iraq and then swiftly get out -- leaving nation-building to the United Nations and similar agencies, maybe the Boy Scouts. He dismissed the looting that stripped Iraq bare following the war, setting the stage for the chaos and lawlessness that persist to this day. He made Jay Garner the viceroy of Iraq and then replaced him with L. Paul "Jerry" Bremer, who sacked the Iraqi army and much of the bureaucracy -- a huge mistake. Under Rumsfeld, just about nothing has gone right.

The guy who should pay for the debacle of Iraq is George Bush. Unfortunately, the American people reelected him, and that, as they say, is that. But Rumsfeld serves at the pleasure of the president. He is a man of substantial charm, not to mention monumental self-confidence, but no one can claim he has been a success. He has failed at the task he set for himself -- a swift victory in Iraq. Almost nothing has turned out anything like he said it would. If he were still the chief executive of G.D. Searle & Co., he'd expect the board to fire him. The same standard should apply at the Pentagon.

The "board" in this case is the president. By sticking with Rumsfeld, Bush presumably thinks he is showing that no mistakes were made in the handling of the war -- that the plan is on course. Unfortunately, no one believes that. Common sense rebuts it. If Bush is going to continue to call on Americans to die in Iraq, he at least has to show that he recognizes his mistakes and is willing to change what needs to be changed. (Didn't he learn anything at Harvard Business School?) The sacking of Rumsfeld would be one such signal -- a sign that this intellectually apathetic president is willing to question his assumptions, challenge his convictions and admit that he has been wrong. When it comes to Iraq, if the United States is going to stay, then Rumsfeld has to go.

cohenr@washpost.com

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