I'll say it up front: I wasn't thrilled with President Bush's answer Monday to press-conference questions about dumping Donald Rumsfeld. Reportedly, the secretary of defense allowed his staff to use an automatic pen to sign bereavement letters to the families of slain soldiers.
Bush told reporters that Rummy is "a good, decent human being who cares deeply about the military and deeply about the grief war causes." You'd think Rummy was running for Miss Congeniality -- not for lead strategist on two warfronts.
I wasn't thrilled because the president's very personal support of Rumsfeld only feeds the Beltway perception that Bush puts too high a premium on loyalty and too little a premium on effectiveness. Yes, Bush said Rumsfeld has been a good defense secretary, but the president failed to convey to reporters that he understood what Rumsfeld critics believe is at stake: that Americans want to know U.S. troops are going to Iraq in numbers sufficient to win the war and, concerns of Spc. Thomas Wilson about "hillbilly armor" notwithstanding, are sufficiently armed.
Bush could have mentioned that, as to the troop-number question, there is hope. The Pentagon has announced it will increase troop strength in Iraq to 150,000. As for armored vehicles, last week, Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Richard Myers told radio talk-show host Tony Snow that the military has ramped up production of armored Humvees.
Bush already had signaled that Rumsfeld isn't going anywhere. No surprise -- there are reasons to retain Rummy. No. 1 is Afghanistan, a highly successful and brilliantly executed mission that many predicted would fail. It's easy to call for a public official's ouster after he or she makes a mistake, but it's not necessarily good policy to oust a defense secretary with a solid record as soon as problems arise.
No. 2 is Iraq, for which, contrary to the claims of some critics, there was a plan, but when do war plans get carried out to the letter? Casualties were fewer than expected in the early stages of the war but greater than expected during the occupation. So is Rumsfeld to blame? Or is it the nature of war that the enemy fights back when it can? Let us not forget that if Iraqi's January elections come off as planned, the war may well change the Middle East -- and, with it, the world.
Sure, there is a public interest in replacing Rumsfeld with a secretary who doesn't own -- or have to defend -- his department's mistakes. There also, however, is a public interest in retaining a man more likely to oversee victory. As the old saying goes, you don't change horses in midstream.