Covering the Front and Back Pages of the Newspaper
November 11, 2006
WAR/POLITICS: The Last Don
In many ways the summary announcement Wednesday that Don Rumsfeld would be stepping down in favor of Robert Gates as Secretary of Defense was more distressing than the elections themselves. It's not entirely clear exactly how much Rumsfeld was fired as opposed to quitting, but at a minimum it's obvious that he wasn't begging to leave and Bush wasn't begging him to stay, so given the timing immediately following a bad election the public is reasonably interpreting this as Rumsfeld being sacked.
Was it time for Rumsfeld to go? Maybe. Certainly Rumsfeld had his characteristic flaws, specifically that as a former Navy pilot his zeal for flexibility and mobility in warfare sometimes seemed to give short shrift to the value of infantry. Equally certainly, his critics were often motivated by the most parochial of interests, as his quest for modernizing the military made many enemies among those wedded to the status quo. An outsider to the Pentagon can never truly assess the value of each of his initiatives, though it seems unfortunate that a man of his energy and institutional knowledge will not be around to see to the end his program of reform.
In the specific case of Iraq, while the Bush Administration is losing a man with tremendous faith in the mission and unmatched determination, at the end of the day the importance of Robert Gates is secondary; Gates is, whatever his other virtues and vices, the classic professional manager. If President Bush keeps faith with the mission, I have no doubt that Gates will carry it out; if he doesn't, it would take more than Don Rumsfeld to set him straight.
What is dismaying is the timing and handling of the announcement. It came too late to help embattled Republican moderates in districts and states unhappy with the Iraq war, yet too soon after the elections to be read as anything but a show of weakness and capitulation to Bush's political enemies. Perhaps it is true that the Democratic takeover of the House made it necessary that Rumsfeld dedicate himself full time to appearing at investigative hearings while someone else takes the reins of the war, but concessions to a party more interested in score-settling than in winning the war do not inspire confidence in President Bush's steadiness in the final two years of his term.
Then again, like it or not, Rumsfeld himself would be the first to admit that you can't win wars without the support of the public and the Congress and a decent effort at media relations. With all three now having turned decisively against Rumsfeld, his ability to do his job going forward was probably fatally compromised anyway.
Despite the shabby treatment he received from the president, I can't weep too much for Rumsfeld himself, for two reasons. First, Rumsfeld is a veteran bureaucratic infighter who has himself been the moving force behind more purges and palace coups than you could count; just to name a few, he has variously been suspected of engineering the 1965 overthrow of House Minority Leader Charles Halleck by Gerald Ford, the 1970 purge of the notorious Terry Lenzer from the Office of Economic Opportunity, the 1975-76 purge of moderates and "realists" (including Henry Kissinger and Nelson Rockefeller) from the Ford Administration, leading to promotions for Rumsfeld to Secretary of Defense and Dick Cheney to White House Chief of Staff, as well as numerous power plays within the Bush Administration, resulting in Rumsfeld outlasting Colin Powell, Jay Garner, Paul Bremer, Andrew Card, and a constellation of generals, among others. He's the ultimate grownup, he knows how the game is played, and his turn was due to come eventually. Hs will retire to a position of great prominence and personal wealth and with the respect and loyalty of many in Washington, the military, and the GOP.
And second, of course, he has had a tremendous run. He started once upon a time as the youngest Defense Secretary in the nation's history and ends as the oldest, and he will leave office having held the job for the longest continuous tenure as well as the longest total tenure, having been the only man to serve in the post twice. He has been hugely influential in many ways within Washington since his arrival as a congressional staffer in 1957, and his protege remains as the Vice President. His legion of aphorisms have entered the popular consciousness, from "known unknowns" to "you go to war with the army you have," to of course the sneering phrase "Old Europe" and the stir it created within Europe itself. And in the end, the fate of the Iraq project will guarantee Rumsfeld's place in history for good or ill, regardless of the circumstances of his departure, just as MacArthur is judged today mainly on his conduct of the war in the Pacific, the occupation of Japan and the landing at Inchon rather than his losing battle with Harry Truman.
There are tough decisions ahead about Iraq, as the reality on the ground has changed over time and the strategies needed to meet that reality will have to be adjusted just as they have been adjusted in the past. It is unfortunate that a man as gifted, energetic and knowing in the ways of the Pentagon as Don Rumsfeld will not have a place at the table to make those decisions. But then, the genius of the American system of war-making is that no one man is indispensable.