Donald Rumsfeld is one of the most experienced men in Washington. So he is presumably not surprised at the fickleness of the chattering classes. Not so long ago, he got nothing but fabulous press and fawning treatment from Congress and the public. Now, the “smart people” have formed up for a political lynch mob demanding his head, with even Republicans insisting that he lose his job once the votes are counted in Iraq.
Even a veteran of decades of inside-the-Beltway and corporate bloodletting like “Rummy” might be amazed by the grounds on which he is being pilloried, however.
Take for example the outrage that has accompanied his response in Kuwait to a soldier in the Tennessee National Guard about the lack of adequate armor protection for troops going into Iraq — a response universally described by media and other Rumsfeld critics as “arrogant.” Long-time Human Events editor Allan Ryskind recently observed that the sound-bite in question sounds entirely different in the full context of Mr. Rumsfeld’s respectful and characteristically thoughtful answer.
The first thing he said was: “I talked to the general coming out here about the pace at which the vehicles are being armored. They have been brought from all over the world, wherever they’re not needed, to a place here where they are needed. I’m told that they are being — the Army is — I think it’s something like 400 a month are being done. And it’s essentially a matter of physics. It isn’t a matter of money. It isn’t a matter on the part of the Army of desire. It’s a matter of production and capability of doing it.”
It was only then that Mr. Rumsfeld made what was taken by the troops — who subsequently gave him a standing ovation — as an unexceptionable observation: “As you know, you go to war with the army you have. They’re not the army you might want or wish to have at a later time.” While the sound bite typically began and ended with those two sentences, Rummy added a further assurance: “Since the Iraq conflict began, the Army has been pressing ahead to produce the armor necessary at a rate they believe — it’s a greatly expanded rate from what existed previously — but a rate that they believe is the rate that is all that can be accomplished at this moment.” He went on in this deliberate, responsible vein for several minutes more.
Imagine the secretary’s surprise when, after these remarks were selectively quoted and repeatedly broadcast in the most unflattering light, the manufacturer of armored Humvees announced he could actually increase production further. More public castigation of Mr. Rumsfeld followed.
Never mind that Mr. Rumsfeld had been given contrary information as recently as when he was en route to his meeting with the troops. It is a cheap shot to denounce him for answering as he did when, to the best of his knowledge, the Army was doing everything humanly possible to meet the current needs. Upon discovering otherwise, full production was ordered.
Mr. Rumsfeld’s observation about going to war with “the army you have” is no less appropriate an answer to those who have assailed him for not assigning more U.S. troops to post-liberation Iraq. Had the 500,000 troops in-theater at the time of Desert Storm been used to overthrow Saddam Hussein in 1991, the aftermath of such an operation — to say nothing of the sorry history of the Middle East during the intervening years — may have been very different.
The first President Bush refused to do that, though, drawing notably on counsel from Colin Powell, Brent Scowcroft and Norman Schwartzkopf. And, having prematurely stopped that war, he and his successor, Bill Clinton, decided greatly to reduce the armed forces’ size and armaments. These cuts left us unable, as a practical matter, to mount another Desert Storm. Even the deployment and sustaining in Iraq of a contingent half that size would have been highly problematic. Interestingly, few, if any, of those now venting their spleens about Mr. Rumsfeld’s ruminations on “the army you have” opposed the cuts that have so limited our present options.
Given the bipartisan agreement that eliminating Saddam’s regime was justified and necessary, the second President Bush and his defense secretary were right, under the circumstances, to work to achieve that objective quickly and decisively, then to draw on allied forces and reconstituted and vetted Iraqi units to help maintain post-war security.
Donald Rumsfeld may not be perfect, but neither are any of his critics. He is nonetheless arguably the finest secretary of defense this nation has ever had. His combination of vast expertise, unflagging energy and strategic vision would be desirable under any circumstances. In time of global war, though, they are truly indispensable.
Most of those seeking Mr. Rumsfeld’s dismissal hope Mr. Bush will overlook the fact that the secretary is his most faithful and capable Cabinet officer in the execution of the president’s policies. They argue some unidentified successor could do better, a false prospect often associated with generic alternatives. In the real world, there is no obvious better man for the job and, to his credit, in his press conference Monday, Mr. Bush signaled that he thinks Mr. Rumsfeld is getting a bum rap and that he intends to hold onto his secretary of defense for the foreseeable future.
Frank J. Gaffney Jr. is president of the Center for Security Policy and a columnist for The Washington Times.