Roots of the Uprising

By E. J. Dionne Jr.
Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Making Donald Rumsfeld the scapegoat for all that has gone wrong in Iraq is a way for other members of the administration to dodge responsibility for a misguided policy.

It makes perfect sense for a group of rebellious retired generals to demand that Rumsfeld go. The defense secretary's mistreatment of Gen. Eric Shinseki, who bravely told the truth to Congress before the invasion about how many more troops it would take to succeed in Iraq, was symptomatic of the contempt of this administration toward anyone who dared question its approach.

Army Maj. Gen. John Batiste, who served as a division commander in Iraq and a military aide to former deputy defense secretary Paul Wolfowitz, had it exactly right last week when he explained why former soldiers were speaking up against their civilian bosses. "Civilian control is absolutely paramount," Batiste said, "but in order for it to work, there is a two-way street of respect and dialogue that has to exist." Respect and dialogue have been alien concepts to this bring-'em-on administration.

But that's also the point: For all his mistakes, Rumsfeld is not some alien creature operating as a loner sabotaging the otherwise reasonable policies of his bosses. President Bush is the commander in chief. Vice President Cheney is on record as having made outlandishly optimistic predictions before the war started about how swimmingly everything would go.

Rumsfeld is Bush's guy, which is why the president resists firing him. Letting Rumsfeld go would amount to acknowledging how badly the administration has botched Iraq.

Indeed, the rebellious generals have not confined their criticism to the secretary of defense. In his powerful article last week in Time magazine, Lt. Gen. Greg Newbold was far-reaching in saying that "the zealots' rationale for war made no sense." That was zealots , plural. He also said that our forces were committed to this fight "with a casualness and swagger that are the special province of those who have never had to execute these missions -- or bury the results." Does anyone doubt to whom those words "casualness" and "swagger" refer?

Newbold, formerly the Pentagon's top operations officer, declared that Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's "recent statement that 'we' made the 'right strategic decisions' but made thousands of 'tactical errors' is an outrage. It reflects an effort to obscure gross errors in strategy by shifting the blame for failure to those who have been resolute in fighting." In other words, if Rumsfeld goes, should Rice go too?

It's amusing to hear the administration's supporters worry that these courageous former generals are a threat to civilian control of the military. The claim reflects this administration's willingness to muster any argument it can put its hands on to silence opposition.

It's also hypocritical. Recall the opposition to President Bill Clinton's proposal to allow gays to serve in the armed forces. A certain head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff named Colin Powell publicly broke with his commander in chief in 1993 in arguing that allowing gay men and lesbians to join would undermine "good order and discipline."

Far from speaking up on behalf of Clinton's rights as the military's civilian leader, Republicans in Congress lined up with Powell and the brass. Rep. Tom DeLay said that allowing gays to serve "undermines the effectiveness of the military." (He also said it "creates health problems.") Newt Gingrich condemned Clinton for engaging in "social engineering." Sen. John McCain challenged Clinton on the basis of the new commander in chief's biography. "This president has not one day of military experience," McCain said, "so, clearly, he does not have the expertise on this issue."

The dust-up over gays in the military reflected an unfortunate fact of American political life: For decades, the top leaders of the American military have been overwhelmingly conservative and Republican in their political sympathies. I say "unfortunate" not because the brass's political views have often differed from my own but because it does not serve our military or our public life well to have the leadership of the armed forces so skewed in a single political direction. Nor does it serve liberals well to be -- or to be seen as -- reflexively hostile to the military.

And that may be the silver lining in the current cloud over Rumsfeld and our Iraq policy. Some smart and patriotic generals are telling us that a policy is not wise or respectful of our troops just because it is put forward by politicians on the right end of our political spectrum. We may be witnessing the weakening of partisanship in the top echelons of the military. That would be very good for our republic.

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