Suddenly, a hardy perennial of the Washington political hothouse is once again in full bloom. The usual suspects are clamoring for the sacking of Donald Rumsfeld, a goal some had sought from shortly after he was first chosen to serve as secretary of defense by then-President-elect Bush.
Unfortunately, the chorus has lately been joined by a handful of retired senior military officers — affording fresh material to a hostile press corps and political cover to elected officials. To his credit, President Bush has made it clear that he is as unwilling to jettison one of his most capable and faithful Cabinet officers in the face of this tempest as he has been in the face of numerous previous ones.
This is the right call for several important reasons:
As Franklin Delano Roosevelt famously — and persuasively — argued six decades ago, it is ill-advised to turn over the leadership of a war effort to new and untested leadership in the midst of a conflict. That is particularly true at the moment, when most of those seeking Mr. Rumsfeld’s dismissal are explicitly arguing that it is necessary to signal a new policy direction in Iraq.
President Bush is correct in believing that the last thing the Iraqi people need now is proof that they are about to be abandoned once again by the United States — something the forced departure of one of those most closely associated with the liberation of Iraq will unmistakably signal.
Much of the argument for firing Donald Rumsfeld rests on the contention that he should be held accountable for the present difficulties in Iraq. In fact, it is at least as arguable that the worst of those difficulties have arisen thanks to decisions made elsewhere.
The conviction at the State Department and in various allied capitals that United Nations approval had to be obtained for action against Saddam Hussein bought the latter (and neighboring states) six months to prepare the post-invasion insurgency and, it now appears settled, to move Iraqi weapons of mass destruction to Syria with Russian help. But for that delay, it may have been possible to consolidate the liberation of Iraq far more quickly, and the WMD threat grounds for undertaking it would surely have been less disputed.
Had the increasingly unfriendly Turkish government not blocked the 4th Infantry Division from participating as Mr. Rumsfeld planned in the invasion by entering Iraq from Turkey, still more troops would have been available in the initial phases of the campaign.
Finally, but for the resistance of some senior military officers, large numbers of expatriate Iraqi forces could have been trained outside the country to accompany the U.S.-led allies, much as General de Gaulle’s troops did in France in 1944. Their participation might have helped to mitigate the insurgents’ rallying cry of opposing foreign invasion and occupation. It may also have been possible to reconstitute a non-Ba’athist Iraqi army far faster. Interestingly, Don Rumsfeld was one of those who called for such training and equipping of a Free Iraqi military as early as 1998.
While the desire for a fall guy when the going gets tough is characteristic of the worst of Washington, the hindsight being applied to castigate Secretary Rumsfeld’s role on Iraq seems remarkably selective.
Many of Mr. Rumsfeld’s critics lack his understanding of the full scope and nature of the conflict. As a result, they remain fixated on one front — Iraq — with seemingly little appreciation either of the dangers extant or looming on other ones (notably, in Iran, Asia, South America, even Europe), let alone the implications for our security interests and ability to defend them in such places if we cut and run from Iraq. For example, the sober assessment of China’s ambitions and activities prepared under Rummy’s direction and finally released last year represents the single best treatment of the subject by an executive branch in decades.
Mr. Rumsfeld has also appreciated the nation’s most serious deficiency in this larger War for the Free World: our inadequate efforts to wage what he has called the “battle of ideas.” Sadly, the responsibility for doing so lies largely outside his department and such efforts as he has tried to undertake in this arena have been repeatedly sabotaged by disloyal public affairs officers and their friends in the press.
Last but hardly least, Donald Rumsfeld has taken seriously the job assigned him by President Bush in 2001: transforming the military so as to ensure that it is capable not only of fighting today’s conflicts but tomorrow’s. The latter may be very different affairs and reengineering institutions like the armed forces to anticipate and be prepared for them is not easy. It is also a source of at least some of the grumbling now being heard from the ranks of the retired flag officers.
It bears mentioning that few, if any, of those demanding Mr. Rumsfeld’s removal offer an alternative. Judging whether his departure would actually constitute an improvement is impossible without knowing who would come next and whether he (or she) would bring to the job anything like the vision, energy and wisdom — to say nothing of experience — of the incumbent.
In the final analysis, the country is very fortunate to have had Donald Rumsfeld serving in office during the opening years of this tumultuous War for the Free World. We will be even luckier if he agrees to continue to provide his leadership in the Pentagon for the foreseeable future.
Frank J. Gaffney, Jr. is president of the Center for Security Policy and a columnist for The Washington Times. He blogs at www.WarFooting.com.