George Will

He tackled a job that couldn't be done,
With a smile, he went right to it.
He tackled a job that couldn't be done,
And couldn't do it.

WASHINGTON -- In 1969 President Nixon appointed a former congressman named Donald Rumsfeld, then a stripling of 36, to head the Office of Economic Opportunity, an agency devoted to the task of eliminating poverty in America. Rumsfeld returned home late one night to find that his wife Joyce had taped the above doggerel to the refrigerator door. If you wonder why Rumsfeld, now 71, is not discouraged by the problems of postwar Iraq, remember he headed Nixon's Cost of Living Council, an absurdity devoted to the impossible -- administering wage and price controls. Over the years he has had really difficult jobs -- jobs about which he could have, and may have, produced memos every bit as sobering as his ``long, hard slog" memo about Iraq, which surfaced this week and caused much feigned excitement among the very war critics who have hitherto complained that Rumsfeld is incapable of seeing the dark side of things.

In our time, only George Shultz (the first director of the Office of Management and Budget, secretary of labor, then treasury, then state) and Pat Moynihan (assistant secretary of labor, White House domestic policy adviser, U.S. representative to the United Nations, ambassador to India, four-term senator) have had public careers with the breadth of Rumsfeld's (member of Congress, ambassador to NATO, White House chief of staff, special envoy to the Middle East, twice secretary of defense).

Like Saul Bellow's Augie March, Rumsfeld is ``an American, Chicago born,'' and Midge Decter, in her just-published biographical essay ``Rumsfeld: A Personal Portrait,'' correctly says he is still not a Washingtonian, but remains a ``child of that prairie-driven culture of vitality.'' However, no one knows more about Washington's ways. And last Saturday afternoon, in a hushed Pentagon where the escalators are turned off on weekends -- and you thought government is not frugal -- Rumsfeld, wearing a fleece vest and feeling feisty, reflected on current controversies.

He argues that although certainty is desirable when making policy, there also is one of Rumsfeld's axioms: ``A narrow focus on the certain obscures the almost-certain.'' Critics contend, correctly, that six months of postwar access to Iraq reveal more uncertainties than anyone imagined in prewar intelligence. However, in the realm of shadows and mirrors that is intelligence from secretive societies, certainty is a luxury policy-makers often cannot wait for.

How much certainty is requisite as a basis for action depends in part on the consequences of being wrong. If, Rumsfeld says, the Iraqi regime had been less wicked, or if it had been in pursuit of the military equivalent of ``a BB gun,'' the United States, even in the post-Sept. 11 environment, could have afforded to give the regime the benefit of more doubts. And could have been more relaxed about classifying matters as ``doubts.''

The administration's critics would be more credible if they had a few doubts of their own concerning their own judgments, such as their reiterated insistence that only mendacity can explain the failure, so far, to find weapons of mass destruction. After all, they say, Rumsfeld, the president and Secretary of State Colin Powell repeatedly asserted that Iraq's weapons programs posed an ``imminent'' threat.

Such assertions by those three officials may have numbered ... zero. Rumsfeld is more bemused than angered, and certainly not shocked, that critics profess themselves shocked and angered because he, Powell and the president supposedly said, repeatedly, something that none of them actually ever said. At least, says a Rumsfeld aide, an electronic search finds not a single instance of them using the argument that Iraq posed an ``imminent'' WMD threat to the United States.

The president said Iraq posed a ``grave and gathering danger'' rather than the familiar locution ``clear and present danger'' because it is reckless to wait until a terrorist danger is present or imminent. In interviews and press briefings before the war, Rumsfeld, like other administration officials, was repeatedly asked to apply the word ``imminent'' to the Iraqi threat, and he repeatedly did not. Today, as then, he stresses the problem of knowing when a threat is imminent: When were the Sept. 11 attacks imminent? ``A week before, a month before, a year before, an hour before?''

The remarkable souring of political argument in 2003 continues as some Democrats, with their calculated extravagance, insist there was ``no plan'' for postwar Iraq. But if that were so, how is it that we have gone, in just six months, from zero to 85,000 Iraqis participating in providing security? And what was all that work done with the World Food Program before the war?

Critics correctly fault the mistaken certitude of some of the administration's prewar pronouncements. But critics indicting the administration not merely for mistakes but for meretriciousness would do well to avoid that in their indictments.


George Will

George F. Will is a 1976 Pulitzer Prize winner whose columns are syndicated in more than 400 magazines and newspapers worldwide.
 
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