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Merry Christmas, Mr. Rumsfeld
The call for Donald Rumsfeld’s ouster has become nearly universal. But will the defense secretary’s critics cop to being just as guilty as he is for bollixing up Iraq?

IT’S HARD TO say what’s more bemusing about the sudden from-all-sides assault on Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld: that it’s taken so long, or that almost all those blasting him have, in fact, acted as his enablers in creating the fine mess we now call "Iraq."

Bemusing — but hardly surprising. On the first point, staving off criticism with a smarmy know-it-all attitude that masks a paucity of real knowledge is hardly novel in Washington. But even by Babylon-on-the-Potomac standards, Rumsfeld’s audacity has been nothing short of remarkable. We are, after all, talking about a guy who had been gone so long from the world of defense policy that, upon returning to the Pentagon in 2001, he hastily deputized trusted associates to spearhead "reviews" for him, which one senior official characterized as "crib sheets and bedtime reading." A guy whose only qualifications for the job were a) having done it 25 years before for less than a year, and even then without a defense-policy background, and b) having chaired a commission in 2000 that was little more than a sop to defense contractors seeking to keep the Star Wars gravy train running. A guy who, when faced with reams of publicly available reports criticizing everything from his highly techno-centric "Revolution in Military Affairs" battlefield approach, to his fundamental misunderstanding of what war in Iraq would actually entail, turned around and charted courses in the opposite directions.

Despite all that, the man who was so target-rich even pre–Abu Ghraib long enjoyed an almost incomprehensible deference. Indeed, looking back, it’s hard to say what’s been more amazing: his unabashed displays of arrogance and condescension, or, until recently, his allies’ full-throated approbation, and the Stockholm-syndrome-like servility shown by those officially or unofficially charged with his oversight.

Historians will likely debate the precise moment when Rummy, punch-drunk on himself, began spiraling into ignominy. Was it when the looting of liberated Baghdad raged out of control? When the nefarious doings at Abu Ghraib were captured on film? When he dissed a righteously pissed-off National Guardsman who wanted to know why the hell his Humvee isn’t armored? When loved ones of fallen soldiers expressed public outrage over his using an auto-pen to sign death-notification letters? Hard to tell. But they’re likely to agree that his descent accelerated in early December 2004, when everyone from neocon warmonger William Kristol to an array of US senators on both sides of the aisle began publicly calling for his ouster on grounds of incompetence. But, one wonders as the year draws to a close, will the defense secretary’s critics cop to being just as guilty as he is for bollixing up Iraq?

"People are pointing fingers about armor for Humvees and trucks, and all that’s valid, but people are not asking the question they really need to be asking, which is, why and how did we get here?" says Winslow Wheeler, a veteran Senate staffer whose recently released book The Wastrels of Defense (Naval Institute Press) provides a fascinating look at congressional complicity in undermining effective defense policy. "The answer isn’t just Rumsfeld. Anyone remember the ideologues calling for war who thought they knew it all but don’t know a thing, or the Congress that helped make it happen while porking up appropriations bills at the troops’ expense?"

WE’LL START with a December 15 Washington Post op-ed penned by Weekly Standard editor William Kristol. Reading Kristol’s piece — a masterpiece of self-serving, disingenuous chicken-hawk propaganda seeking to recast history with rhetorical sleights of hand — you’d never know there was a magazine called the Weekly Standard that agitated for war based on all manner of myopic assumptions, or that there’s anyone in the Pentagon aside from Rumsfeld. To wit:

Leave aside the fact that the issue is not "the number of troops we had for the invasion" but rather the number of troops we have had for postwar stabilization. Leave aside the fact that Gen. Tommy Franks had projected that he would need a quarter-million troops on the ground for that task — and that his civilian superiors had mistakenly promised him that tens of thousands of international troops would be available. Leave aside the fact the Rumsfeld has only grudgingly and belatedly been willing to adjust even a little bit to realities on the ground since April 2003. And leave aside the fact that if our generals have been under pressure not to request more troops in Iraq for fear of stretching the military too thin, this is a consequence of Rumsfeld’s refusal to increase the size of the military after Sept. 11."

Okay, right. To buy all this, we’d have to leave aside a lot. First would be a number of publicly available Army studies from 2002 noting that Army forces were already stretched too thin, and that the Army wasn’t too keen on stretching them further by doing protracted duty in Iraq. We’d also have to leave aside the fact that the Army War College and a host of others pointed out well in advance what "post-war" Iraq was likely to look like, and that neocons and hawks in and out of government thought those notions ridiculous. (I don’t think I’ll ever forget being told by one of Paul Wolfowitz’s staffers in early 2003 that the deputy secretary’s office saw no need to read the War College’s Reconstructing Iraq: Insights, Challenges and Missions for Military Forces in a Post-Conflict Scenario. "Those guys in uniform think they know everything," he sneered derisively, by way of explanation.)

We’d have to leave aside the fact that a decorated career soldier, then–Army chief of staff general Eric Shinseki, told Congress and the world that the post-war troop requirement would be in the hundreds of thousands, and that not just Rumsfeld but Weekly Standard fave Wolfowitz pissed all over Shinseki publicly, with Wolfowitz calling Shinseki’s estimates "wildly off the mark." Indeed, we’d have to leave aside the fact that the Weekly Standard itself shat on both Shinseki and the notion that any circumstances might arise that would require a larger troop commitment. In the March 24, 2003, Weekly Standard, Jeffrey Bell cast Iraq’s future in US hands as a struggle between "occupiers and democratizers," arguing — without entertaining even the vaguest possibility of an insurgency — against the notion that a protracted or sizable US presence to help stabilize Iraq might be necessary.

Indeed, Bell actually applauded Rumsfeld for publicly rebuking Shinseki over his troop estimates, explaining that Rummy’s reprimand was "the clearest sign to date that Islamic democratization is close to being adopted as the final remaining piece of the Bush war strategy." And in the May 5, 2003, issue, the Standard’s Max Boot held that post-war Iraq "probably will not require the 200,000 troops suggested by Army chief of staff Eric Shinseki, but it will require a long-term commitment of at least 60,000 to 75,000 soldiers."

The US troop presence in Iraq is currently 138,000. Last month the administration announced the number would be increased to 150,000 by mid January 2005.

We’d also have to leave aside the fact that the Weekly Standard and its ilk were banging the drum against traditional allies in favor of a "coalition of the willing" (a classic contribution to this canon was the Standard’s March 3, 2003, "Vive le Boycott! Using Economic Levers To Reward Our Friends and Punish Our Foes"), whether or not our new "allies" would be able to make any substantial troop contributions. (After all, given their faith in precision-guided munitions and their misunderstanding of what a war with Iraq would actually look like, Standardites doubted it would take that many soldiers.) To hear the Standard crowd tell it, we had all the international support we needed. On March 20, 2003, the magazine’s Fred Barnes gushed that "the Bush administration now counts 44 countries in the coalition of the willing.... The role of these tiny nations is small, but the roles of a number of Arab nations who aren’t officially coalition members is large.... Adding the unnamed countries, the anti-Iraq coalition is the broadest in modern times, with more members than opposed the Nazis in World War II or the Iraqis in the Gulf war." And large numbers aside, the Standard had nothing but praise for the quality of coalition soldiers. "Haven’t heard of Poland’s Special Forces?" the mag asked on May 8, 2003. "They’re real, they’re serious, and they’re here to save the day." No doubt they’re real and serious, but they certainly haven’t saved the day, and they may not be around Iraq much longer. This past October, the Polish government spoke openly of pulling all its troops from Iraq, and recently announced that at least a third of them are coming home in early 2005.

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Issue Date: December 24 - 30, 2004
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