The new Teflon Don

May 12, 2004|By Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON - President Harry Truman's old desk sign, "The Buck Stops Here," would clearly have no place in the Bush administration, in which mistakes seldom occur, are even less often admitted and are almost never punished.

So it's not surprising that Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, his cocksureness undiminished, appears at least for now to have survived the uproar over the scandal of prison abuse in Iraq and critics' calls for his resignation.

President Bush, who was in no hurry to apologize to the Iraqi people and the Arab world in general for the humiliating treatment portrayed in the photos from the Abu Ghraib prison, wasted no time declaring that Mr. Rumsfeld was "doing a superb job" and would remain in his Cabinet.

The most the president allowed was the report, from unidentified White House sources, that he had privately chided the Pentagon chief for not having alerted him much sooner about the months-old Army general's report on prisoner abuse. It cited methods of interrogation that disregarded tenets of the Geneva Conventions.

If Mr. Rumsfeld had been fired, critics calling for his head might have regretted getting what they asked for. In the midst of a shooting war, the commander in chief might have been obliged to elevate the secretary's deputy, Paul Wolfowitz, who is generally regarded by those critics as a principal architect of the war and even more bullheaded than Mr. Rumsfeld.

Nor has there been any administration admonition of the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Richard B. Myers, for having called on the CBS television show 60 Minutes II to delay broadcasting photos of prisoner abuse. It was left to Democratic Sen. Mark Dayton of Minnesota, during General Myers' appearance before the Senate Armed Services Committee last week, to lecture the general on the First Amendment for what Mr. Dayton labeled "suppressing" the news.

While it is true that most of the demands for Mr. Rumsfeld's scalp and for other heads to roll have come from Democrats, two Republican senators joined the chorus of criticism on the Sunday talk shows.

GOP Sen. Chuck Hagel of Nebraska, a decorated Vietnam War veteran who has not been bashful about questioning the administration's handling of the Iraq fiasco, said on CBS' Face the Nation that "it's still in question whether ... Rumsfeld and, quite frankly, Myers can command the respect and trust and the confidence of the military" in light of the prison scandal.

At the same time, Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, on NBC's Meet the Press, warned against higher-ups passing the buck, saying, "We just don't want a bunch of privates and sergeants to be the scapegoats here." The relieved U.S. commander of the prisons in Iraq, Brig. Gen. Janis Karpinski, has already complained of being cast as a scapegoat.

Other calamitous administration performances also have not been chastised. The failure to back up the intelligence claims of weapons of mass destruction in Iraqi hands, which Mr. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney used to justify the pre-emptive invasion, has not seemed to shake the tenure of CIA Director George J. Tenet.

The role of Mr. Cheney hasn't been diminished, either, by his firm assurances that American troops would be met as liberators in Iraq. Nor have those administration numbers-crunchers who insisted that revenue from the liberated Iraqi oil fields would more than pay for the reconstruction.

Also, the disastrous miscalculations about the post-invasion challenges to the occupying forces, the number of troops needed and the cost to be paid in American lives and dollars all seem to be fatherless. To paraphrase an earlier wartime leader, never have so many suffered from so many screw-ups committed by so few acknowledged perpetrators.

Both Mr. Bush and Mr. Rumsfeld have mouthed the usual empty acceptances of responsibility, but the Teflon administration continues to go its unfazed way. A Cold War president, John F. Kennedy, observed after his own fiasco at the Bay of Pigs in 1961 that "victory has a hundred fathers and defeat is an orphan." You can say that again.

Jules Witcover writes from The Sun's Washington bureau. His column appears Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.

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