It's Time for Him to Go

By Robert Dallek
Sunday, October 8, 2006

Before he appointed Donald H. Rumsfeld as secretary of defense, President Bush would have done well to listen to the tape of an old telephone conversation between Rumsfeld and President Richard M. Nixon. It was March 1971, and Nixon was offering career advice to Rumsfeld, then head of Nixon's Office of Economic Opportunity:

"You should be thinking of what you should do in the future," he told the 39-year-old Rumsfeld. "Down the road, my view is that you would be a Cabinet officer. . . . [A]nd you can do, as far as I'm concerned, anything in the Cabinet field, except I wouldn't put you in Defense and I wouldn't put you in State . . . actually, you could be attorney general."

Perhaps Nixon understood something about Rumsfeld that eludes Bush. Whether out of loyalty to his defense secretary, or out of a stubborn reluctance to acknowledge Rumsfeld's failings -- and therefore his own -- Bush seems determined to keep Rumsfeld in the Pentagon. In so doing, the president is hanging on to an individual who has become the public face of the U.S. debacle in Iraq, one who has drawn fire not only from political opponents and countless retired military officers, but also from longtime Bush loyalists, such as former chief of staff Andrew H. Card Jr. and even, reportedly, first lady Laura Bush.

But Bush would not be the first president to keep a controversial or ineffective official in place for fear of embarrassing his administration. Predecessors from Woodrow Wilson to Lyndon B. Johnson have grappled with similar dilemmas.

Forcing Rumsfeld to retire would be a political blow for the White House, at least in the short term: It would be an admission that Bush not only miscalculated the need for a preemptive war against Saddam Hussein but also bungled the plan to pacify and democratize Iraq after the invasion. Nonetheless, history shows that such tough personnel decisions can, eventually, prove healthy for an administration and for a nation, particularly in times of war. They force reassessments of long-standing policy; they help presidents stand back, evaluate and chart new directions.

Now, with little more than two years remaining in the Bush administration, the president can still drop his longtime defense secretary in favor of another who could bring fresh ideas and renewed credibility to the battle against terrorism and the war in Iraq. It's not too late.

Some Cabinet members stay in office long beyond their usefulness. Cordell Hull ended up as the longest-serving U.S. secretary of state (from 1933 to 1944) despite his unimaginative leadership and severely limited role in shaping Franklin D. Roosevelt's foreign policy. President Dwight D. Eisenhower was reluctant to kick out "Engine" Charlie Wilson, his much-criticized defense secretary. At the time, some joked that Wilson, a former General Motors executive, had invented the automatic transmission so that he would always have one foot free to stuff in his mouth. And Nixon resisted firing Attorney General John N. Mitchell despite -- or because of -- his role in Watergate.

Other Cabinet secretaries, by contrast, leave too soon. President Jimmy Carter and the country lost a thoughtful public servant when Cyrus Vance resigned as secretary of state after the failed hostage rescue effort in Iran, which he had opposed. Vance's departure deprived the administration of an experienced national security official at a time of great international turmoil; the move only reinforced Carter's shortcomings as a foreign policy leader and weakened his bid for a second term.

It is wars, however, that provide some of the toughest personnel decisions for presidents -- but also some of the best opportunities to change course. The wartime dismissals or resignations of three high-level officials are particularly illustrative: William Jennings Bryan, Wilson's secretary of state; Gen. Douglas MacArthur, Harry S. Truman's commander of U.S. forces in Korea; and Robert McNamara, Johnson's secretary of defense and principal architect of the war in Vietnam.

Bryan resigned in 1915 over his belief that Wilson -- by favoring Britain and France -- was violating the stated U.S. policy of neutrality in World War I. The move came as a surprise to the White House, and resurrected questions about Bryan's suitability as the country's chief diplomat. A parochial Midwesterner with limited knowledge of the outside world, Bryan had been puzzled by a diplomat's mention of the Balkans during a trip he took to Europe in 1908. "What are they?" he asked as he boarded a train in Constantinople.

Bryan had been appointed to State for his eminence as a party leader and his help in winning Wilson the Democratic presidential nomination, not for any expertise in world affairs; he was certainly not the best person to shape an effective response to the European war that began in 1914. But his sudden departure -- its initial embarrassment to Wilson notwithstanding -- forced into the open a debate over America's role in the conflict and helped spur the domestic consensus that allowed the United States to join the Great War.

When Truman dismissed MacArthur in 1951 after the general publicly attacked the president's Korea policy as too timid -- "There is no substitute for victory," MacArthur had declared -- Secretary of State Dean Acheson warned Truman that the move would provoke "the biggest fight of your administration" with the men Acheson called the "political primitives." But it was more than right-wing zealots who attacked Truman over his decision. The dismissal became a headline story nationwide. In the words of Truman biographer David McCullough, the reaction "was stupendous, the outcry from the American people was shattering." Calls for Truman's impeachment became common and MacArthur's return to the United States turned into a triumphant tour of major cities, with parades and demonstrations greeting the general. Sixty-nine percent of Americans sided with MacArthur against the president.

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