Defending the Defense Secretary

Posted: Dec 22, 2004 12:00 AM

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.

 Cliff May of the pro-war Foundation for the Defense of Democracies noted that it would be wrong to oust Rumsfeld if there is no good answer to the question "Who should replace him, and what policy should replace his?"

 Bush would have to pick someone else -- preferably someone who would carry out Rumsfeld's plans to transform the U.S. military (and don't expect any of Rummy's many critics to take on that thankless job). I asked Sen. John McCain last week if he'd be interested in the job. He said he could do more for the military if he heads the Senate Armed Services Committee in two years.

 Then there is the problem that if the Bushies found someone who would agree to sign on, then they'd have to sell the new guy to Congress.

 Also, after the Bernie Kerik fiasco, Bush would have to be a fool to risk nominating someone whose background could derail the nomination. Say what you will, but Rumsfeld knows how to withstand the brutal scrutiny of the public spotlight.

 For his part, Rumsfeld at least has attended some 36 town-hall meetings with U.S. troops who were given the opportunity to confront the secretary. If he were afraid of bad news, he would not put himself in that position. It's especially gutsy of Rumsfeld to expose himself to critical troops, considering that this is an age when style crimes and verbal gaffes -- for example, he didn't personally sign condolence letters himself, and he gave a less-than-artful answer at a meeting with troops in Kuwait -- do more damage to a career than a lost battle.

 Meanwhile, both Bush and Rumsfeld should find a dramatic way to assure U.S. troops that they will have the equipment and backing they deserve in combat. I don't want to hear that Rumsfeld is a nice guy. I want to know that Bush and Rumsfeld will do whatever needs to be done.

 But I didn't hear that.