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March 26, 2006

Eventually, Donald H. Rumsfeld will go. But when it happens - and the sooner, the better - it won't be for the right reasons. As he enters his sixth year in office, the combative defense secretary has made plenty of enemies and wrought plenty of damage, and he must know that some day he will become expendable. But if his departure should serve to deflect attention from what's really wrong with the war in Iraq and with the ideology that spawned it - well, that would be too bad.

The neoconservatives detest Mr. Rumsfeld, and several have called on him to quit. They don't like him because he's not one of them, because he is a skilled and ruthless bureaucratic infighter, and because they believe he botched a perfectly wonderful project, which was the creation of a free-market paradise on the banks of the Tigris and Euphrates. The most prominent Pentagon neocons, Paul Wolfowitz and Douglas Feith, have long since left for greener pastures.

President Bush last week dismissed the idea that he should find a new defense secretary. And although this is certainly in keeping with the president's loyalty to those around him, at some point it will become tempting within the White House to think that if Mr. Rumsfeld goes, he could take a large portion of the public's bad feeling about the war with him. When might that be? How about sometime between now and congressional elections in November? The president could pretend that he has a new broom sweeping clean, and some voters might even fall for it. The war would drag on.

How much better it would be if Mr. Rumsfeld could be called to account for those things that will be permanent and genuine stains on his legacy: Guantanamo, especially, to which he paid particular attention, but also Abu Ghraib and the other American outposts of torture, and a sequel of courts-martial that have scandalously targeted enlisted personnel and no one else; plus the haughty refusal to provide Iraqis with any sense of security in the anarchic days following the fall of Baghdad, an off-handedness for which Americans and Iraqis are still paying; and the wreck of the Army, because of a theory that it should do more with less.

One of Mr. Rumsfeld's fundamental errors is in thinking that a war on "terror" can be fought with tanks and missiles, and that it somehow comes down to territory seized or lost. His first term at the Pentagon was in the Ford administration, and he still seems at times to wish he could be fighting a real foe, like the Soviet Army, instead of a ragtag bunch of dead-enders.

When he goes, it won't be because of any of this. That will, among other things, make his successor's job all the harder. A new defense secretary will have to patch up the Pentagon, restore discipline and morale and a moral compass, take the side of the services in fights with the West Wing, and yet act as though nothing is fundamentally wrong. Mr. Rumsfeld will be a hard act to follow - and we don't mean that as a compliment.

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