Neocons vs. Rumsfeld

Posted: Dec 23, 2004 12:00 AM

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- In the bowels of the Pentagon, the colleagues and subordinates of Donald Rumsfeld were not upset by Republican senators who were sniping at him. Instead, they complained bitterly about a call for his removal by a private citizen with no political leadership position: William Kristol, editor of The Weekly Standard. His position was, in effect, a declaration of war by the neoconservatives against the secretary of defense.

 The capital's feeding frenzy over Rumsfeld's fate did not begin until Kristol's Dec. 12 op-ed column in The Washington Post. While critical senators did not get to the point of demanding Rumsfeld's removal, Kristol did. He said the troops in Iraq "deserve a better defense secretary than the one we have." A firm declaration by a prominent Republican activist turned journalist who is the clarion of neoconservatism counts for more than equivocation by U.S. senators.

 Rumsfeld's civilian colleagues at the Pentagon are furious because they consider Kristol a manipulative political operative, critiquing the war in Iraq after years of promoting it. But his criticism has a broader base. Kristol long has called for big-government conservatism, which on the international sphere involves proactively pursuing democracy around the world. He and the other neocons do not want to be blamed for what has become a very unpopular venture in Iraq. Thus, it is important to get the word out now that the war in Iraq has gone awry because of the way Rumsfeld fought it.

 Rumsfeld is often bracketed with the neocons, but that is incorrect. In a long political career that dates back to his election to Congress in 1962, he has not even been associated with the traditional conservative movement. In the run-up to the attack on Iraq, he was not aggressively pressing intervention by force of arms, but instead was shaping a military response to fit President Bush's command.

 Rumsfeld did name Richard Perle, one of the foremost neocon voices calling for a change of regime in Baghdad, as chairman of the part-time Defense Policy Board. Also named to the board was Kenneth Adelman, an old friend of Rumsfeld's who is identified as a neocon. Adelman gained notoriety by promising that the conquest of Iraq would be a "cakewalk." Indeed, rejoicing over the quick rout of Saddam Hussein's army, Adelman wrote that cakewalk -- a word always rejected by Rumsfeld -- turned out to be a correct description.

 With the bloody occupation of Iraq underway, Adelman's demeanor changed in his frequent appearances on CNN's "Crossfire" (where I often was a co-host). His mood became more subdued. The garish, oversized American flag necktie that Adelman wore as he urged war on Iraq was retired, as he somberly began to criticize (while never mentioning Rumsfeld by name).

 On April 30 of this year, Adelman said a "miscalculation" had been made in war planning because the operation in Iraq "has gone worse than we expected a year ago." On June 28, he said "there were failures," adding that the purge of Baath Party members and "the dismissal of the army was something that we could have done a lot better." On Nov. 8, he said failure to clean insurgents out of Fallujah was "a bad decision."

 Unlike Adelman, Kristol pinned defects in war-fighting tactics directly on Rumsfeld. In a Weekly Standard essay of Nov. 17, 2003 (written with his frequent collaborator, Robert Kagan), Kristol assailed Rumsfeld for sending insufficient troops to Iraq. "Rumsfeld remains dogmatically committed to a smaller force," he wrote.

 Thus, the neocon message is that the war was no mistake but has been badly conducted. While Adelman does not blame his friend Rumsfeld, the accountability of the secretary of defense is implicit. Kristol's call for Rumsfeld's dismissal removes culpability for those who beat the drums to go to war.

 Getting rid of Rumsfeld does not answer agonizing questions. Was the change of regime in Baghdad worth going to war? Could Saddam Hussein have been removed from power by other means? Is the use of U.S. military power to topple undemocratic regimes good policy?

 There are no clear answers. To say simply that all would be well in Iraq, save for Don Rumsfeld, only begs these questions.