Rumsfeld survives

December 08, 2004|By Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON -- The start of a second presidential term is traditionally a time for internal change, with some Cabinet members leaving either for personal reasons such as burnout or because the re-elected president wants them to go.

In the Bush administration, so far eight Cabinet secretaries are on their way out. But, remarkably, the one member of the team who has been most responsible, beyond the president himself, for the fiascoes of the first term is staying.

That would be Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, under whose watch in the first term the administration committed too few forces to complete the job of conquering and pacifying Iraq. Also under his watch, the military botched the detention of Iraqi prisoners in a shameful and deplorable scandal at Abu Ghraib.

With Mr. Rumsfeld in charge, thousands of Army troops have been kept in service beyond their enlistments in Iraq and thousands of National Guardsmen and reservists have been called up and retained beyond their expected tours there in a glaring exercise of mismanagement.

Complaints also abound about soldiers and military vehicles without sufficient armor to protect the troops plus various scandals regarding sales of military supplies and food services.

Yet in keeping with the official line that all is going well in this best of all possible military adventures, the president has told Mr. Rumsfeld he wants him to continue to run the show. It's an administration in which nobody ever seems to get blamed for anything -- except maybe Secretary of State Colin L. Powell.

Ironically, it is Mr. Powell who is leaving after putting his reputation on the line at the United Nations for a policy about which he held deep reservations. Also, it was Mr. Powell who argued against a premature invasion of Iraq and for more time for weapons inspectors to do their job there.

As for Mr. Rumsfeld, his departure at the end of the first Bush term might have been seized by administration critics as an admission of the need for a major course change when there is no indication that any such shift is in prospect.

President Bush, when asked to mention mistakes he had made in the first term, was unable to come up with any. In a rarity in this administration, Mr. Rumsfeld acknowledged to reporters on the way to Afghanistan the other day that some had been made, such as believing Iraq had weapons of mass destruction and the failure to get sufficient intelligence about the insurgents gumming up the works there.

Asked whether during the first term he had ever had any thoughts of quitting, he observed only that "certainly there were days," but he didn't elaborate. That's what passes for candor nowadays.

With the president's blessing, Mr. Rumsfeld now apparently has a mandate for more of the same stay-the-course policy, even as the casualties, American and Iraqi, mount with every week.

On his latest trip, the secretary was asked whether he thought U.S. troops would be out of Iraq by the end of the second Bush term. "I would certainly expect that to be the case, and hope that to be the case," he said.

Although the latest announced increase in American forces in Iraq from 138,000 to 150,000 was designated specifically to achieve enough stability to enable the Iraqi elections to take place Jan. 30 as scheduled, it will surprise few if they remain there long afterward.

As for Mr. Rumsfeld, he has declined to say how long he will remain at the Pentagon, whether for another four years or only through the Iraqi elections. The departure from the State Department of Mr. Powell, with whom he has had major differences on Iraq and was a rival power center, should ease Mr. Rumsfeld's pressures within the administration.

The outlook for another four years in Iraq certainly was not the public expectation when President Bush stood under that "Mission Accomplished" banner on the aircraft carrier USS Lincoln on May 1, 2003. But with his re-election behind him, the anti-war clamor of the campaign and calls for Mr. Rumsfeld's scalp appear to have cooled off for now.

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

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