Why the president should keep Rumsfeld around

April 24, 2006|By STEVE CHAPMAN

CHICAGO -- Should the president fire Donald H. Rumsfeld? That's like asking if Disney should retire Mickey Mouse. Why get rid of someone who represents everything important about an institution - particularly if doing so leaves those things unchanged?

No, President Bush should keep Mr. Rumsfeld as a perennial symbol of the administration's essential characteristic: hubris.

If you want to know what went wrong in the presidency of George W. Bush, you could find plenty of candidates.

There is its ineptitude, as when it ignored warnings about al-Qaida until Sept. 11, 2001, or when it ignored warnings about Hurricane Katrina until New Orleans was under water.

There is its Sopranos-style approach to critics and even in-house skeptics - from Joseph C. Wilson IV, whose wife was outed as a CIA agent after he questioned the case for war, to Lawrence Lindsey, the economic adviser canned for admitting the war might cost $200 billion, an estimate that turned out to be laughably low.

There is its peerless gift for self-delusion, as when the vice president said our troops in Iraq would be greeted as liberators and the insurgency - in May 2005 - was in its "last throes."

There is its brazen dishonesty, which is on exhibit every time the president and his budget directors claim to be practicing fiscal restraint, even as spending grows faster than Las Vegas.

All these traits flow from the same source: a self-congratulatory narcissism that is utterly impervious to events in the real world. The defining moment for this president was his "Mission Accomplished" pageant, where he jumped at the chance to strut in the glory of victory, not noticing that the victory was beginning to unravel.

That was a triumph of arrogance, which my dictionary defines as "an attitude of superiority manifested in an overbearing manner or in presumptuous claims or assumptions." And if you want a human embodiment of that trait, you can hardly do better than Mr. Rumsfeld, who was happy to take credit for the initial success of the invasion but pretends that anything that may have gone wrong is way beyond his control.

Not that he admits much has gone wrong in Iraq: "Progress has been good," he advised Rush Limbaugh the other day. This is the same guy who, as Iraq descended into chaos and violence shortly after the fall of Saddam Hussein, said airily, "Freedom's untidy." Is he deluded or deluding?

The problem is not that Mr. Rumsfeld failed to anticipate everything that occurred in Iraq. It's that he was told what to expect and refused to listen, or prepare for what might happen if he was mistaken.

When Army Chief of Staff Eric K. Shinseki said the postwar occupation might require several hundred thousand troops, Mr. Rumsfeld publicly ridiculed him. When commanders in Iraq warned him early of an incipient insurgency, he paid them no heed.

Mr. Rumsfeld said he antagonized the military brass by demanding needed changes that they were too hidebound to embrace. But in some cases, they were right to doubt: His preference for small, light, fast forces, which worked passably well in Afghanistan, was spectacularly ill-suited to Iraq.

Retired Maj. Gen. John Batiste, who commanded the 1st Infantry Division in Iraq, told The Washington Post, "The current secretary of defense is dismissive, contemptuous and arrogant. Many of us have worked for far tougher and more aggressive men, but those leaders understood leadership, the value of teamwork, and that respect is a two-way street."

Jay M. Garner, the retired general originally in charge of the Iraq occupation, has said of the office of the secretary of defense, "The military part has been politicized. If [officers] disagree, they are ostracized and their reputations are ruined."

But none of that is reason for the president to sack him. The problem doesn't lie with Mr. Rumsfeld so much as with those above him.

Worse, firing him would establish the principle that those entrusted with power are accountable for their failures. And if we followed that policy, who knows where it might lead?

Steve Chapman is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune. His column appears Mondays and Wednesdays in The Sun. His e-mail is schapman@tribune.com.

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