Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Last week, a political sandstorm in Washington began swirling around Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s future. A handful of retired general officers, though no admirals yet, called for the secretary to go on the grounds of mishandling the war in Iraq. President Bush predictably offered strong support for Mr. Rumsfeld, as did a handful of other retired flag officers.

In this brouhaha, three important ingredients are so far missing in action. First is recognizing that the war in Iraq is Mr. Bush’s war, not Mr. Rumsfeld’s. Second, accountability for the errors, misjudgments and mistakes in conducting that war and its aftermath cannot responsibly be laid at the feet of only one person. Third, we continue to ignore what lies ahead in Iraq, an ignorance that could prove fatal to the entire endeavor.

A disclosure is in order. Recall that as the summer of 2001 passed into autumn, the drumbeat for Mr. Rumsfeld’s resignation was building.

Sometime after September 11, in opposition to this clamor, this column called for the secretary to “press on” in his quest to transform the Defense Department. He did.

Now, nearly five years later, the nation must appreciate that American policy and actions in Iraq and the Middle East have been defined, approved and authorized by the president. While Mr. Rumsfeld was a principal architect, the responsibility for the war rests above the secretary’s pay grade. The buck does stop at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

Second, a good number of other people were intimately involved in the takeoff that led to the invasion of Iraq. If Mr. Rumsfeld should go, what about the vice president or the secretary of state, national security adviser and the chairman and joint chiefs of staff? As key members of the team closest to the president, have they no responsibility or accountability here? And what about other members of the Bush Cabinet? If the nation is at war, why is the Defense Department the only agency acting that way? Why should other cabinet secretaries not be held accountable for demanding similar levels of commitment from their departments?

There is also the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue. If Mr. Rumsfeld becomes the lightning rod for failed policy, surely Congress cannot be absolved of responsibility. By decisive majorities, both parties authorized the war, as well the nearly half a trillion dollars of funding so far spent on Iraq. And what about holding really substantive hearings? Shouldn’tthe speaker, majority and minority leaders of both houses and committee chairmen and ranking members have their feet metaphorically held close to the accountability fires?

We are witnessing the predictable spectacle of Iraq’s National Assembly failing to produce a government. But here is the zinger. Forming the government may prove the easy part. Once a government is formed, by law, the assembly has four months to rectify the unresolved constitutional issues. Power sharing, division of oil revenues, Shariah vs. civil law and the role of women are incredibly important and daunting matters that still are unsettled. Then, once the constitution is amended, if that does occur, there will be a two-month period for the Iraqi public to vote on the new document. Hence, there is a built-in period of at least six months wherein that nation will be focused on solving what could be unsolvable issues, all the while dealing with an insurgency that is coming dangerously close to outright civil war.

In a perfect world, a president might be tempted to step back and take a fresh look at this situation. Mr. Bush is disinclined to do that, believing we are on the right course. And were Mr. Rumsfeld replaced, without any major policy shift, what effect would that have other than giving critics a temporary sigh of relief until his successor is seen as carrying out the same strategy with or without the tough-guy image of the current secretary? Reference has been made to President Johnson’s appointment of Clark Clifford to replace Robert McNamara as secretary of defense in 1968. Despite the flaws in Mr. Clifford’s character that would later surface in the banking scandals over BCCI, it took a further seven years before the United States finally withdrew from Vietnam. Obviously, policy — not the spokesman — is what counts.

If Congress had a backbone, it would inquire as to why these half-dozen and soon-to-be-more general officers came forward publicly to criticize the administration through calling for Mr. Rumsfeld to leave.

It would also be interesting to know what private views the some 1,700 flag officers on active duty have about this controversy, even though that answer raises questions about civilian control perhaps best left silent.

Most importantly, whether Mr. Rumsfeld stays or goes misses the point.

All is not well in Iraq. Is anyone in the White House listening?

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