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Rumsfeld Staying Put

By Tom Bevan

Yesterday afternoon, both the Secretary of Defense and the President made it clear: Don Rumsfeld is staying put. This is good news.

For days I've been trying to wrap my head around the idea suggested by some that public support for the war in Iraq would increase if only Joe Lieberman is appointed to run the Pentagon. This strikes me as bogus. Support for the war is ultimately determined by what people read in their newspaper and see on TV. Unless Joe Lieberman has some magic formula to turn things around (Joementum for Iraq!), public support for the war in Iraq isn't likely to change until there are signs of progress on the ground.

Likewise, I've also been trying to figure out exactly what the retired generals who've called for Rumsfeld's resignation suggest we do differently in Iraq today and moving forward. Is there a strategy we should be following in Iraq but aren't? As Michael O'Hanlon of the Brookings Institution - who freely admits to being no fan of Secretary Rumsfeld - said in a radio interview the other day, without offering a current, strategic rationale for Rumsfeld's resignation (i.e. we should be doing "x" in Iraq but aren't) the retired generals' attacks on the Secretary of Defense amount to little more than a "referendum on his personality" which is neither constructive nor, in my opinion, terribly becoming.

When you're caught in the midst of a beltway tempest where opinions swirl and things become distorted, it's always a good idea to step back and take stock of the situation from a broad perspective.

Don Rumsfeld has operated at the highest levels of public and private life for the last four decades. He is by all accounts an exceedingly smart guy, a master at organizational management, and a deep thinker with a remarkable record of achievement. It's safe to say that over the course of those forty years the name Don Rumsfeld and the word "incompetence" have never been mentioned in the same sentence - until recently that is.

Rumsfeld is also, to put it bluntly, a hard-ass and a perfectionist. He's been known to send back DoD reports five, six, and seven times until they meet his standards. His "snowflake memos" are notorious within the Pentagon, as is his combative style of debating and discussing issues. Civilians and military personnel refer to it as getting "the wire brush treatment."

On top of that, Rumsfeld came to Washington and began implementing a vision of transforming the military into a lighter, more lethal, and more effective fighting force that could respond rapidly to changing threats and technology. This was especially tough to handle for a group of military officers who had gotten used to more or less running their own show under the Clinton administration. To use an old phrase, Rumsfeld has been making omelettes inside the Pentagon for the last five years, and he's cracked more than a few eggs along the way.

Has the war been going as smoothly as some people thought? No. Does Don Rumsfeld bear responsibility for this? Sure, as do the other civilian and military leaders who've been involved in the process. Is the war in Iraq a failure? Not at all, though removing Rumsfeld would have certainly given off that impression both to our friends and, more importantly, our enemies.

Think back to the fickleness that has governed the ebb and flow of public opinion with respect to Rumsfeld. Prior to entering Afghanistan in 2001, we were pelted with dire warnings about the cruel Afghan winter and Soviet failure and the utter impossibility of achieving success. Weeks later the world marveled at how we took control of the country with so few troops and casualties - and not a single officer complained about Rumsfeld's "contempt" or "arrogance" in helping put together what turned out to be a brilliant military plan on the fly in a matter of weeks.

Ditto 2003, when critics and the media carped about the plan for invading Iraq, deeming it a "quagmire" before the first shot had been fired. Weeks later we controlled the country and Rumsfeld was anointed a rock star by the press. For those who were paying attention, Rumsfeld was saying then what he's saying now: it's been a team effort. "I would be happy to take credit," Rumsfeld said of the Iraq war plan, "but the reality is, the whole thing was worked out by the CINC."

One of the witticisms collected and cataloged by Rumsfeld years ago in Brilliant Pebbles reads, "A friend in Washington D.C. is someone who stabs you in the chest." These days Rumsfeld is walking around the with more than a few knives in his back. But he's going to keep on walking, which is the right thing to do.

Tom Bevan is the co-founder and Executive Editor of RealClearPolitics. Email: tom@realclearpolitics.com

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