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.
Within weeks, however, the outcry turned into acceptance of the president's assertion of civilian authority over military power. MacArthur's firing eventually led to a sober examination of what best served U.S. interests in Asia -- a wider war with China or a conflict confined to Korea that contained communist aggression and left the United States free to defend its security in other parts of the world? In hindsight, MacArthur's firing encouraged a realistic understanding that containment made more sense than war. "Victory" was no more the only exit strategy in Korea than it was decades later in Vietnam or than it is today in Iraq -- no matter what Henry Kissinger said to Nixon in the 1970s or whispers to Bush and Vice President Cheney today.
McNamara's departure from the Johnson administration in 1967 was nothing like MacArthur's. McNamara left with his boss's blessing and received the presidency of the World Bank as a reward. But the real story behind the resignation was different from the image of a public servant in sync with his president on the Vietnam War and taking his leave after years of exhausting service. By the fall of 1967, McNamara had concluded that the war was a lost cause and urged Johnson to reduce U.S. involvement and shift responsibility for the fighting to the South Vietnamese -- a strategy reminiscent of today's "As Iraqis stand up, we will stand down." Indeed, the failed "Vietnamization" experiment of the Vietnam War should only deepen doubts that a rebuilt Iraqi army can deal effectively with Iraq's violent insurgency.
Johnson became angry with his defense secretary for abandoning a strategy that McNamara himself had done so much to put in place, and the president considered his removal a way to sustain the U.S. effort in Vietnam. But instead, McNamara's departure forced Johnson to reconsider the secretary's proposal and, eventually, to adopt it. Following the resignation, the president consulted with America's foreign policy "wise men" -- such as Acheson, W. Averell Harriman and Maxwell D. Taylor -- who convinced him that the country would not pay the price in blood and treasure to win in Vietnam. However uncomfortable and wrenching the departure may have been for both men, it was also a constructive step toward ending what had become a divisive and unpopular war, and one that was ultimately unproductive in the larger contest with Soviet communism.
Today, the nation again faces a divisive and unpopular war, and one that appears counterproductive in the larger battle against Islamic extremism. And in this war, Bush and Rumsfeld -- and, in particular, Cheney and Rumsfeld -- seem joined at the hip.
Yet the president should consider how the departures of Bryan, MacArthur and McNamara helped spark useful national debates and critical course corrections during World War I, Korea and Vietnam. Rather than considering Rumsfeld's exit as strictly an embarrassing confession of failure -- which of course it would be in part -- Bush could regard the appointment of a new defense secretary as an opportunity to stand back, review past actions and move in new directions.
Robert Lansing, a competent diplomat, took over for Bryan as Wilson's secretary of state. Johnson chose Clark Clifford, a respected and independent Washington figure, to fill in for McNamara. Both were instrumental in shifting policy on their respective wars, and were just as successful in renewing public confidence in U.S. efforts and intentions. Similarly, Bush could consider replacing Rumsfeld with someone of the stature of former senator George Mitchell or, as former chief of staff Card suggested (according to Bob Woodward's account in his new book "State of Denial"), former secretary of state James A. Baker III.
Finally, there is one candidate who is as qualified as he is unlikely to ever get the job: Zbigniew Brzezinski, the national security adviser under Carter. Brzezinski has proved brilliant and incisive in his criticism of the war. He notes, correctly, that there is no real U.S. strategy underpinning this conflict, as containment and deterrence focused the Cold War. Preemption has been disastrous, and victory is an outcome, not a strategy. Brzezinski also has the force of will and personality to demand real change. But that sort of change would require more than a new defense secretary -- it would require a new administration.
Robert Dallek's book, "Nixon and Kissinger: Partners in Power,"
will be published by HarperCollins next spring.