Rummy's loyalty card

Posted: May 09, 2004 12:00 AM

If ever there was a group that should understand adults losing control in a group setting, ganging up on weakened individuals and then humiliating them gratuitously, it is journalists.

 Alas, photographs showing the sadism of U.S. guards at Iraqi prisons seem to have brought out the worst in America's pundits. Witness the number of columnists who have called on President Bush to fire Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld.

 Some might argue that Rumsfeld is responsible for everything that happens under his watch. Nonsense -- Rumsfeld is responsible for things that he allows to happen. But as the Wall Street Journal editorial page reported Thursday, Rumsfeld's Pentagon swiftly investigated and set out to prosecute U.S. troops who mistreated Iraqi detainees. There was no cover-up. There was an investigation months before "60 Minutes II" reported these abuses.

 So what's the new beef? Rumsfeld should have read the voluminous report on abuses at the Abu Ghraib prison, said New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd. (When you think about it, Dowd is attacking Rumsfeld for not reacting like a journalist -- he could have at least claimed to have read the report.)

 Others argue that he should have shared photos of U.S. troops humiliating prisoners with members of Congress or Bush.

 Good grief.

 Do I suspect that administration critics want Bush to dump Rumsfeld because they think it would begin a spiral of self-recrimination? Mais oui. That's why recent press conferences have featured reporters asking Bush to please-pretty-please catalog his many mistakes.

 That's one reason Bush won't fire Rummy. He realizes that the drums beating the loudest for Rumsfeld's head want it as a campaign trophy. And the blame that falls first on Rumsfeld would then spill over onto Bush.

 Another reason is that Bush doesn't like to can loyal soldiers. As Secretary of State Colin Powell told Bob Woodward for his book, "Plan of Attack," one day Powell realized, "The president was not going to toss anyone over the side, not Powell, not (CIA Director George) Tenet." In return, Bush expects his people to not "jump ship."

 There are exceptions, but not many. He's three years into office, yet Bush has fired Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill and economic adviser Lawrence Lindsey -- and he let Environmental Protection Agency chief Christine Todd Whitman leave her post -- and that's about it.
The Hoover Institution's Martin Anderson, who advised Bush during the 2000 campaign, believes that the low turnover at Casa Bush has much to do with how carefully Dubya picked his Cabinet.

 Anderson sat through long policy talks Bush held with Powell and Rumsfeld, as well as National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz and Veep Dick Cheney. Now, they're the inner circle. Bush "knew these people. He likes them. He knows them. And he tends to be loyal," Anderson noted.

 University of California, Berkeley, political science professor Bruce Cain is among those who argue that Bush should fire Rumsfeld. But Cain is enough of a Beltway observer to understand that it is highly likely that "Rummy will not be let go immediately. If it happens, it will happen after the (presidential) election."

 And it's not just a matter of electoral politics. Consider Tenet. If Bush hadn't kept Bill Clinton's director of the CIA when he assumed office, Bush would have been in the perfect position to blame Clinton for every intelligence failure he inherited. Bush knew that, but he kept Tenet anyway. After the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Bush didn't try to dump Sept. 11 in Tenet's lap. He didn't turn his CIA chief into a scapegoat -- as some Dems and Repubs wanted him to do.

 "I don't think he works that way," Anderson explained. Blaming other people simply doesn't get a job done.

 To think -- Bush had two solid chances to blame intelligence oversights on Democrats, but instead, he chose to stick with a man who he thought was more likely to get the job done.

 Bush wasn't ruthlessly partisan. He didn't discard a man for the sake of convenience. And those are qualities that Washington wags simply cannot grasp.