WASHINGTON -- Democrats calling for Donald Rumsfeld's resignation invoke the principle of ministerial responsibility: a Cabinet secretary must take ultimate responsibility for what happens on his watch. Interesting idea. Where was it in 1993 when the attorney general of the United States ordered the attack on the Branch Davidian compound in Waco that ended in the death of 76 people?
Janet Reno went to Capitol Hill and said, ``It was my decision, and I take responsibility.'' This was met with approving swoons and applause. Was she made to resign? No. And remember: this was over an action that did not just happen on her watch, but that she ordered -- an action that resulted in the death of, among others, more than 20 children.
Given the fact that when they were in power Democrats had little use for the notion of ministerial responsibility, their sudden discovery of it over Abu Ghraib suggests that this has little to do with principle.
This is, of course, about politics. And for the administration, the politics are simple: Cabinet members are there to serve the president, and if they become a political liability, they should fall on their sword for the greater good of the administration.
If that were the case here, I am sure that Rumsfeld, who does not need this job or any job, would resign. He should not. Throwing Rumsfeld to the baying hounds will only increase their appetite.
Remember that when the scandal broke, there was lots of murmuring among the chattering classes about the inadequacy of the president's initial response because, for all his remorseful groveling on al Hurra and al Arabiya, he had not invoked the magic phrase: I'm sorry. So what happened when shortly after, in the presence of King Abdullah of Jordan, he explicitly apologized? ``They've Apologized. Now What?'' (Headline, New York Times, the very next Sunday.)
In the Rumsfeld case, the ``Now What?" is obvious. Democrats will pocket the resignation, call it an admission of not just ministerial responsibility but material responsibility at the highest levels of the administration, and use that to further attack the president.
In any case, the whole Rumsfeld debate is a sideshow. For partisans it is a convenient way to get at the president. And for those with no partisan agenda but shocked by the Abu Ghraib pictures, it is a way to try to do something, anything, to deal with the moral panic that has set in about the whole Iraqi enterprise.
Charles Krauthammer is a 1987 Pulitzer Prize winner, 1984 National Magazine Award winner, and a columnist for The Washington Post since 1985.
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