Don't resign, Mr. Rumsfeld

Posted: May 12, 2004 12:00 AM

 Mr. George F. Will has written a column on Secretary Rumsfeld that is thoughtful, elegantly constructed, historically allusive -- and wrong. While not quite being willing to spit it out, he leads his readers -- and presumably his prime targeted reader, Mr. Rumsfeld himself -- to the precipice, with the pregnant implication that Mr. Rumsfeld should jump. Noble resignation is the theme of Mr. Will's column. At this moment, that is as bad advice as an honorable person can give a public official. Mr. Rumsfeld should keep his bottom firmly in his secretarial chair, not for his own sake but for the sake of his president and the national interest.

 Mr. Will's abstract argument, in a nutshell, is that: 1) Americans should not flinch from the facts; 2) empire is about domination, and the act of dominating tends to corrupt; 3) there should be a penalty for failure in office, or such failures will proliferate; 4) our response to the prison scandal should be proportional to the transgression; 5) America needs an ethic of resignation from public office; and 6) no man is indispensable.

 Numbers 1, 2 and 4, above, are right; No. 3 is sometimes the case, No. 6 is demonstrably wrong; and this is a damn fool time to propose No. 5.

 For those of us who dabble in ideas, we are always in danger of falling into intellectual narcissism -- that is, we fall so in love with the gorgeousness of our idea that we fail to measure it against the brass tacks of reality. Mr. Will, ever the Tory intellectual, has fallen in love with the British and Continental tradition of honorable resignation from high office. I agree with him -- it is a useful and highly ethical tradition. But it is not an American tradition. And in his desire to see Donald Rumsfeld begin that tradition, he misjudges the political and policy consequences.

 Mr. Will's column is an extended attempt to compliment Mr. Rumsfeld so profusely that he will resign for the sheer nobility of it all. First, Will asks the central question: Would Rumsfeld's resignation help or hinder our war on terror? While he doesn't answer the question, he purrs that: "This is not a simple call. But being experienced, (Rumsfeld) will know how to make the call. Being honorable, he will do so."

 Next, Mr. Will tries to seduce him with the Macbeth option, which would give Mr. Rumsfeld the discrete pleasure of gaining elite approval: "Would discerning people say that nothing in (Rumsfeld's) public life became him like the leaving of it?"

 Then he lays in his elegant political science argument to appeal to Mr. Rumsfeld's intellect: "This nation has always needed an ethic about the resignation of public officials. Such an ethic cannot be codified. It must grow ... etc."

 Finally, Mr. Will shrewdly leavens these compliments with an implied tribute to Mr. Rumsfeld's modesty. He quotes Charles de Gaulle's famously droll observation that the graveyards are full of indispensable men. While DeGaulle's quip is a useful reminder to those of us with dilated egos -- it is demonstrably wrong.

 At a given moment, a particular person may well be crucial to the success or failure of a project. Winston Churchill in 1940 was indispensable to Britain fighting on against Hitler. Martha Stewart keeping out of prison may be indispensable to the continued profitability of the Martha Stewart Enterprises. The English King Harold's death at the Battle of Hastings in 1066 resulted in the collapse of the stout Saxon defense against William the Conqueror. His life was indispensable. His death ended Saxon rule of Britain.

 And right at the moment, Donald Rumsfeld is the indispensable man in his current office. Of course, other people could do the job as well, better or worse. That is probably always the case about any officeholder. (Although for my money, his knowledge, character, intellect, strength and courage would make him very hard to match at a merely technical level.)

 But when famous men fall from office, they bring down with them a whole set of political consequences. This is not a moment for a technical job performance assessment. We are less than six months from a presidential election. Secretary Rumsfeld is seen across the globe as the president's point man on the Iraq war and the current stage of our war on terror.

 Whether he chose to leave on his own volition or was fired, the world would see it as President Bush firing him. And that would be reasonably seen as an implicit admission that the president believed that the central event of his presidency was a failure. It would probably cost him the presidency. But that would be the least of it. Rumsfeld's fall would be a self-fulfilling prophecy. We are not losing the Iraq struggle. But if Rumsfeld resigns, the project would inevitably collapse for failure of political will -- and with it, the first major battle of the War on Terror.