We ought to give Donald Rumsfeld a little sympathy for his handling of a surprise question from a common soldier.
But not much.
He deserves some sympathy because he fielded an extremely difficult question from an unexpected direction at an unexpected time. And the press seized on his improvised answers as if they were White Paper policy statements. Give this 70 year old man a break: from out of the blue comes the most important question about a war for which he takes full responsibility, and he manages to keep his head to produce, with only a few seconds of thought, reasonable answers that did not look too foolish.
Furthermore, this powerful question, "Why are we soldiers fighting without the armor we need?" turns out to have been planted by a member of the press who probably knew if he had asked the question himself, the Secretary of Defense would have destroyed him.
But our sympathy ends there.
Because this was indeed the most important question about this war, Mr. Rumsfeld needed a well prepared, well crafted answer tucked in his hip pocket. Then, having not left home without it, his response to this inevitable query would have begun, "I am glad you asked me that question…"
His actual answer, "You fight with the army you’ve got, not the army you want," would have been perfect after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. But this administration was set on invading Iraq from the moment it hung its collective hat in the White House. After 9/11, the President set his military preparing for nearly 12 months before crossing the Kuwaiti border. And no one compelled the Secretary to invade when he did – he would have jeopardized no strategic advantage by delaying until he was confident all preparations were complete.
Thus the unhappy result of a brief exchange between a soldier and a Secretary is that somewhere, somehow, Mr. Rumsfeld needs to own up to a mistake. He can choose one of three.
First mistake: The administration was blindsided when a rapid military victory over uniformed troops morphed into an insurrection quagmire against urban guerillas. Although our new improved Rumsfeld-designed army is better prepared than ever to fight Russian tanks on the plains of central Europe, or Iraqi tanks in the barren deserts of the Arabian peninsula, it is woefully unprepared to stage a prolonged police action against improvised explosive devices.
Or Mr. Rumsfeld might prefer a second mistake: The administration was not surprised when Battle turned into Insurrection. The Secretary of Defense knew from the inception that our troops would be fighting house to house against paramilitary fanatics. Nonetheless he invaded in spite of this shortfall knowing our inadequately armored military would be bled white by international terrorists flocking to Iraq for the unique opportunity to launch rocket propelled grenades at American tanks.
Ah, but perhaps Mr. Rumsfeld will choose Mistake Number Three: No mistakes were made. The war is going perfectly. The daily deaths of American soldiers are all part of his grand plan, ultimately vindicated by the creation of democratic, all–inclusive government in Iraq that will never dare to organize a terrorist attack against the United States or create weapons of mass destruction to use against us. Not, mind you, that Iraq did either before the invasion, but you can never be too careful, can you?
So in this remarkable and unprecedented exchange, Mr. Rumsfeld is finally held accountable for a war of his own creation, fought with an army of his own design, at a time of his own choosing. Now he must face the consequences. If he accepts credit for the initial military victory, he must accept responsibility for the morass that followed. His unsavory alternative is to contend his war is going perfectly, and that these annoying complaints from a few malcontented soldiers are the result of dangerous exposure to delusional liberal propaganda, allowing their minds to be twisted by traitorous journalists daring to question their government during wartime.
Why is it important to acknowledge a mistake of this magnitude? Mr. Rumsfeld is not the first presidential advisor making a sincere judgment call on the best information available (to give the Secretary credit he may not deserve) which turned awry. But if the mistake is not appreciated, we can be sure that the same mistake will be repeated again. And again. Mr. Rumsfeld would have benefited greatly from the reflections of a former holder of his position, Robert McNamara, who learned bitter lessons from his mistakes. Or from a former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff whose carefully articulated Powell doctrine would possibly have avoided the entire disgraceful enterprise.
So Mr. Rumsfeld, no more sympathy for you until you demonstrate the respect due to soldiers who fight in your name, to a President who depends upon you to chose wars carefully, and to your fellow citizens whose sons, fathers, brothers and sisters will be put in harm’s way when you choose your next war.
Which mistake will you own up to?
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