Heels dug in

April 21, 2006

The reaction to the so-called generals' revolt is getting ridiculous. President Bush and Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and Mr. Rumsfeld's loyal cadre of top officers have gone to such lengths to defend the Pentagon chief from attacks by a handful of retired generals that you can't help but wonder whether the home-grown insurgents haven't hit a nerve. He's starting to look like the secretary of defensiveness.

Any sensible American should feel slightly uneasy when military men (even if they're out of the service) begin agitating for a change in the civilian leadership. But the danger is when someone like Gen. Douglas MacArthur - the Korean War commander with his own outsized political ambitions - comes along, and nothing like that is happening now. Officers have always resisted quietly (as Colin L. Powell did when proposals were floated to intervene in Bosnia in the early 1990s), and perhaps the real question is why this has taken so long to go public.

But with the U.S. military badly worn out, with colossal political miscalculations, with no apparent recognition that the situation in Iraq is bordering on the desperate, and with the ineradicable and criminal stain of Abu Ghraib hanging over the entire enterprise - it should surprise no one that a small group of officers might feel obligated and honor-bound to point out the obvious, which is that Mr. Rumsfeld is not the man for the job.

Well, circle the wagons. Mr. Rumsfeld has always been so sure of his opinions that he was deaf to caveats and contemptuous of skeptics - to the great sorrow of the army he was determined to transform. But the elaborate show-and-tell put on this week in his defense suggests that his supreme self-confidence has been breached, at last.

Unfortunately, the consequences are likely to be just the opposite of those the generals hope for. The White House is going through a big shake-up right now that is largely meaningless because the central question that alarms Americans is Iraq - but on Iraq, President Bush has now dug in his heels. A month ago, a new defense secretary could have been plausible from the administration's point of view, but not now.

The president says there's only one solution to Iraq, and that's victory, and only one man who can bring it about - the man who has botched it all so badly thus far. Victory over whom, by the way? Terrorists, Sunni Arab insurgents, Shiite death squads, corrupt politicians? Mr. Rumsfeld should spend less time finding ways to defend himself and more thinking about what is best for America.

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