05/13/2004: Meanwhile, Fred Kaplan asks....music: Respighi: Ancient Airs #3; Rossini: William Tell Overture
the question that we all should have been asking for days: Failing to Recognize Failure: Why does the President still trust Rumsfeld's Judgement?
On Dec. 15, 1993, not quite a year into President Bill Clinton's first term, his secretary of defense, Les Aspin, announced that he would resign. Two months earlier, 18 U.S. Rangers had died, some of them brutally, in the disastrous "Black Hawk Down" raid on Mogadishu. A month before that, the Rangers' commander in Somalia had asked the Pentagon for armored vehicles. Aspin rejected the request. In the raid's aftermath, many blamed Aspin's denial for the Americans' deaths.Interestingly enough, in an earlier column Kaplan explained why Rumsfeld probably wouldn't be fired:
Some controversy remains over whether Aspin—who died a year and a half later from heart problems at age 56—deserved to be the fall guy; but it's an irrelevant debate. The key point is that Aspin lost the president's confidence. Once that happens, for whatever reason, the Cabinet officer in question needs to be replaced.
The key question about the much-discussed survival of Donald Rumsfeld, the current secretary of defense, is not so much whether he should stay or go, but rather why President George W. Bush still has confidence in his judgment.
In this light, the pertinent issue about the prison tortures at Abu Ghraib is not Rumsfeld's place in the chain of command; it's the fact that he knew, or should have known, about the tortures and the photographs—not just from Gen. Taguba's report but much earlier from the briefings by the International Committee of the Red Cross—and, apparently, didn't tell the president. In short, he failed at one of his primary duties—to cull the thousands of scraps of information that come into the Pentagon every day for the nuggets of data that the president needs to know. His failure to alert Bush of this nugget has meant a huge cost in U.S. credibility just at the moment—less than two months before the transfer of sovereignty to Iraq—when our credibility is most vital. Yet Bush continues to trust that Rumsfeld will keep him properly apprised in the future, even tells him in public that he's doing a "superb" job.
The puzzle goes well beyond Abu Ghraib. In fact, one could imagine some presidents using the current crisis as an opportunity to can Rumsfeld for the many transgressions he's committed over the past couple of years—errors of judgment that have caused far more deaths than occurred in Mogadishu.
All these mistakes have been recited many times before. The odd thing about the long list, viewed in the context of Abu Ghraib, is that Bush gave Rummy a pass for the whole lot. One of the president's jobs is to relieve the nation of Cabinet officers who make consistently bad decisions, especially bad decisions that swell the ranks of our casualties and diminish our standing in the world. The responsibility, to use a much-tarnished word, lies not with Rumsfeld but with Bush.
Yet it is exceedingly unlikely that Rummy will get the boot—and not just because we have a presidential system of government, and not just because our political language has been debased to the point where a word like "responsibility" means nothing.So basically, we're stuck with the man who's probably been the most incompetent secretary of defense in recent memory, simply because it's more politically expedient that he stay than that he be removed.
Rumsfeld will almost certainly survive because President George W. Bush's political fortunes—at least for the moment—demand that he survive.
If Bush fires Rumsfeld, he would be admitting that he'd made a mistake in keeping Rummy onboard for so long or in hiring him for the job to begin with. Somewhere along the line, someone (Karl Rove?) advised Bush never to admit making a mistake. Up to a point, this was sound advice. To the extent Bush gets high marks in polls, they are chiefly for such traits as confidence, conviction, and consistency. He has to appear righteous—and right—to maintain these marks. For him to dump Rumsfeld—especially after saying several times that he'd keep him in his cabinet—would erode his entire image. The basis of his attacks on John Kerry (that he's a "flip-flopper") would seem hypocritical; the edifice of his re-election campaign could crumble.
If a president's (or presidential candidate's) most appealing slogan is, "I say what I mean and I mean what I say," the appeal starts to wash away if he changes his mind and retracts his words, especially if he does so under pressure.
Bush has other pressing reasons to keep Rumsfeld. Who would replace him? The Pentagon would be thrown into turmoil. By the rules of succession, the deputy secretary of defense would step up as acting secretary. But the deputy, Paul Wolfowitz, has even less credibility on Capitol Hill. In fact, Rumsfeld's entire inner circle is tainted—if not by the Abu Ghraib scandal, then by the controversies over the Iraq war and the "stovepiping" of false intelligence that led up to it. Confirmation hearings for a new secretary would be a golden opportunity to revisit each of these controversies in great detail, with an election just months away.
One more crucial factor: Rumsfeld, by all accounts, is a bureaucratic brawler. He will not go gently. He did not give up a lucrative executive's life and return to government in order to get tarred, feathered, and railroaded out of town. He also has a strong ally in Vice President Dick Cheney. The two worked side by side for Presidents Nixon and Ford; they have been constant allies in the internecine struggles of this administration. If Bush dumps Rumsfeld, he couldn't do so without Cheney's consent. Then watch out for the hellstorm.
One can only hope that the voters remember, in a democracy, we get the kind of government we deserve.....
Len on 05.13.04 @ 09:27 AM CST