Donald Rumsfeld is a fascinating government official. His talents are legion, his intellect impressive and his charisma powerful. And who would have thought a multimillionaire in his 70s could be so hip and so able to command the affection and loyalty of troops in their 20s?
But, alas, in his tenure as secretary of defense, Rumsfeld has become a tragic figure of almost Shakespearean proportions. For all the good he has accomplished and despite the way he led the country’s military response to 9/11, he has made huge mistakes, especially in Iraq, that are costing the United States dearly. The strengths and confidence that can make Rumsfeld so decisive and effective also make him dangerous when he is wrong. And on the prisoner abuse issue—as on the development of a proper plan to stabilize Iraq after Saddam Hussein fell, as on the issue of how to forge a war coalition—he has been badly wrong.
A combination of supreme self-confidence, powerful conviction in the rightness of America’s cause, continued insensitivity to many aspects of Arab politics, and a swashbuckling style that plays better on American TV than in Paris or Cairo or even Baghdad may explain why Rumsfeld can make such bad mistakes. When he is wrong, he tends to be very wrong.
Alas, it did not have to be this way. While one can debate whether Rumsfeld should now resign, one cannot debate his ability and his competence. He is probably one of the three or four most gifted secretaries of defense to hold that job since it was created in 1947.
He manages the Pentagon with CEO-style toughness. He has unusual verve in challenging the uniformed military over its traditional and sometimes ossified ways of doing business—on which weapons to buy, on how to structure forces and where to deploy them abroad, even on how to fight wars.
Often Rumsfeld is right. Even when he is not, he often pushes the system to challenge old assumptions and develop new ideas. And while he is very conservative, he is not particularly ideological.
As a result of these overall strengths, Rumsfeld has gotten some good things done in his three-and-a-quarter years on the job. Among his most impressive accomplishments was the war plan for Afghanistan. There were mistakes made, including letting Osama bin Laden escape and failing to properly stabilize the country. But the battle plan for overthrowing the Taliban was clever and effective.
Another success was his support for the Army’s impressive restructuring efforts, which have received Bush administration blessing despite the personal disagreements between Rumsfeld and former Army Chief of Staff Gen. Eric Shinseki. Rumsfeld is now leading the completion of a bold new plan for rethinking how American forces are based and operated overseas.
All the more reason why this week’s news—that Rumsfeld failed to alert the president to the existence of photos showing American abuse of Iraqi prisoners, and even more so that he failed to respond quickly to earlier reports of the abuse—is so disheartening. We now have the United States appearing indifferent to the well-being of Muslims, and providing the world ample unforgettable visual imagery to document it. The damage will, as an administration official put it this week, endure a generation.
Last fall, Rumsfeld wrote a memo, later leaked to the press, in which he worried that we are not winning the war on terror because new terrorists are being created faster than we can kill or arrest them. He now has even more reason to worry, largely because of the actions of a few bad apples in his own military, which he long had reason to know about yet failed to address.
As John Kerry rightly argues, Rumsfeld’s biggest mistake was ignoring widespread advice to prepare for a difficult and chaotic environment once Hussein was overthrown.
As a result, we lost the initiative that the initial victory gave us, allowed insurgents to reorganize and caused the Iraqi people to doubt our good intentions and commitment.
Rumsfeld appears also to have had a major hand in our on-again/off-again tactics in Fallujah, in which the United States was seen (unfairly, but widely) as callously killing innocent Iraqis without even managing to achieve most of its tactical objectives.
George W. Bush has indicated that he wants Rumsfeld to stay on. But for the good of the country, and its image in the Arab world, it is no longer clear that is the right choice.