The Generals' Revolt

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

PRESIDENT BUSH'S stubborn support for Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld has compounded U.S. troubles in Iraq, prevented a remedy for the criminal mistreatment of foreign detainees and worsened relations with a host of allies. Now it is deepening the domestic political hole in which the president is mired. Half a dozen senior retired generals have publicly criticized Mr. Rumsfeld, touching off another damaging and distracting controversy at a critical moment in the war. Thanks in part to his previous misjudgments, Mr. Bush has no easy way out.

Mr. Bush would have been wise to accept Mr. Rumsfeld's resignation when he offered it nearly two years ago. At that time it was clear that the defense secretary was directly responsible for the policy of abuse toward detainees that resulted in the shocking Abu Ghraib photographs, as well as far worse offenses against detainees. By then, too, Mr. Rumsfeld's contributions to growing trouble in Iraq were evident: his self-defeating insistence on minimizing the number of troops; his resistance to recognizing and responding to emerging threats, such as the postwar looting and the Sunni insurgency; his rejection of nation-building, which fatally slowed the creation of a new political order. Had Mr. Bush replaced Mr. Rumsfeld in 2004, the administration might have avoided the defense secretary's subsequent and similar mistakes, such as his slowness to acknowledge the emerging threat of Shiite militias and death squads last year.

The president's signal failure to hold his defense chief accountable no doubt has helped to produce the extraordinary -- and troubling -- eruption of public discontent from the retired generals. A couple of those who have spoken out, including retired Marine Gen. Anthony Zinni, former head of U.S. Central Command, opposed the war all along, but three others served in top positions in Iraq. Much of their analysis strikes us as solid -- but the rebellion is problematic nonetheless. It threatens the essential democratic principle of military subordination to civilian control -- the more so because a couple of the officers claim they are speaking for some still on active duty. Anyone who protested the pushback of uniformed military against President Bill Clinton's attempt to allow gays to serve ought to also object to generals who criticize the decisions of a president and his defense secretary in wartime. If they are successful in forcing Mr. Rumsfeld's resignation, they will set an ugly precedent. Will future defense secretaries have to worry about potential rebellions by their brass, and will they start to choose commanders according to calculations of political loyalty?

In our view Mr. Rumsfeld's failures should have led to his departure long ago. But he should not be driven out by a revolt of generals, retired or not.

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