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Replace Rumsfeld

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By David Ignatius
Friday, April 14, 2006

With luck, Iraq will make a fresh start soon with the formation of a new government. The Bush administration should do the same thing by replacing Donald Rumsfeld as defense secretary.

Rumsfeld has lost the support of the uniformed military officers who work for him. Make no mistake: The retired generals who are speaking out against Rumsfeld in interviews and op-ed pieces express the views of hundreds of other officers on active duty. When I recently asked an Army officer with extensive Iraq combat experience how many of his colleagues wanted Rumsfeld out, he guessed 75 percent. Based on my own conversations with senior officers over the past three years, I suspect that figure may be low.

But that isn't the reason he should be replaced. Military officers often dislike the civilians they work for, but in our system strong civilian control is essential. On some of the issues over which he has tangled with the military brass, Rumsfeld has been right. The Pentagon is a hidebound place, and it has needed the "transformation" ethic Rumsfeld brought to his job. I'm dubious about the Pentagon conventional wisdom that we needed 500,000 American troops in Iraq. More troops were necessary, but they should have been Iraqi troops from an army that wasn't disbanded.

Rumsfeld should resign because the Bush administration is losing the war on the home front. As bad as things are in Baghdad, America won't be defeated there militarily. But it may be forced into a hasty and chaotic retreat by mounting domestic opposition to its policy. Much of the American public has simply stopped believing the administration's arguments about Iraq, and Rumsfeld is a symbol of that credibility gap. He is a spent force, reduced to squabbling with the secretary of state about whether "tactical errors" were made in the war's conduct.

The Bush administration has rightly been insisting that the Iraqis put unity first and that in forming a permanent government they remove ineffectual and divisive leaders and replace them with people who can pull the country together. The administration should heed its own advice. America needs leadership that can speak to the whole country, not just the people who already agree with the president.

Rumsfeld's replacement should be someone who can help restore a bipartisan consensus for a sensible Iraq policy. One obvious candidate would be the centrist Democrat Sen. Joe Lieberman. Another would be a centrist Republican with military experience, such as Sen. Chuck Hagel or Sen. John McCain. The administration would have to swallow its pride to take any of them on board, but that's the point: Without bold moves from the White House, support for the war will continue to slip away.

It now seems clear that President Bush can't erase the Iraq credibility gap on his own. He has been trying to rebuild consensus for the war for months, in a series of speeches and strategy papers. But the poll numbers keep going down. His job approval ratings have fallen below 40 percent in all the latest polls, with Post-ABC News at 38 percent, CNN-USA Today-Gallup at 37 percent and Fox-Opinion Dynamics at 36 percent. Support for the war has crumbled even more sharply. The latest Post-ABC poll found that 58 percent of the country now feels the war wasn't worth fighting, compared with 27 percent back in April 2003.

If the Iraqis can form a unity government -- and that's certainly a big "if" -- they will need America's help in pulling the country back from civil war. America now has a better military strategy for Iraq, one that puts more responsibility on Iraqi forces and emphasizes counterinsurgency tactics. And it has a political strategy that is at last reaching out to all the different Iraqi communities -- Sunni, Shiite and Kurd -- rather than to a handful of former exile leaders. This political-military strategy may fail, but it's too soon to make that call. To buy some time, the administration needs a new political base. If it continues with the same team, it will get the same result.

Rumsfeld is a stubborn man, and I suspect the parade of retired generals calling for his head has only made him more determined to hold on. But by staying in his job, Rumsfeld is hurting the cause he presumably cares most about. The president, even more stubborn than his Pentagon chief, is said to have rejected his offer to resign. If that's so, it's time for Rumsfeld to take the matter out of Bush's hands.

The administration needs to look this one clearly in the eye: Without changes that shore up public support in America, it risks losing the war in Iraq.

davidignatius@washpost.com


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