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Exit Rumsfeld, Smiling

By Jed Babbin

One day in the next two weeks there will be a departure ceremony at the Pentagon. Flags will fly, bands will play and the liberal media will calumniate. Should the president choose to add the Presidential Medal of Freedom to the other honors rendered, it's entirely possible that some newsrooms will have to bring in trauma therapists. The 527 Media will indulge themselves in one last feeding frenzy over the man they love to hate, Donald Rumsfeld. Mr. Rumsfeld's departure will feature a revival of the political fables that have been written about him, and provide a cautionary tale for his successor, Robert Gates.

Mr. Rumsfeld will probably walk out of the Pentagon smiling at the thought of a job well done. His tenure has been colored by an onslaught of media attacks, but Rumsfeld knows that American history is enriched by men who suffered the same treatment at the hands of the press and were later judged to be some of our greatest leaders. Grant, Sherman, and Lincoln endured appalling media attacks throughout the Civil War (Lincoln the incompetent baboon, Grant the drunk, Sherman the crazy man) but historians were better able to judge them.

The criticisms of Rumsfeld, both fair and foul, are overshadowed by a string of lasting accomplishments ranging from bringing ballistic missile defense from theory to reality to transformation of the military from a Cold War garrison force to the flexible forces needed to fight the war we're in. Add to that the rapid overthrow of the Taliban and Saddam regimes, positioning America to deal with the rise of China, subtract Bush's unwillingness to take the battle to the enemy's centers of gravity, and Rumsfeld's record will be seen as imperfect, but one that may prove him to have been our best Secretary of Defense. History will be kinder to Rumsfeld than the daily press, just as it has been to our Civil War leaders, because it will see facts from a greater distance than those who write and broadcast every day can achieve. Some of the facts historians will place in context are these.

After 9-11, the president wanted to hit the Taliban hard, fast and decisively. But Army Chief of Staff Eric Shinseki insisted that almost the entire army had to be deployed to do it, and that would take several months. Rumsfeld and the other military leaders crafted a plan to take us to war - and to victory -- in weeks. America attacked the Taliban in early October 2001 and the Shinseki army - except for Army Special Forces and helo forces -- stayed home. By December the regime was toppled. Then began the media's contrivance of stories - possibly in collusion with congressional Democrats - about Rumsfeld's supposed failures that have led to everything from Usama bin Laden's escape to the mess in Mesopotamia.

The media suffered a panic attack at the beginning of the Afghan and Iraq wars. When our forces paused in the advance toward Baghdad, the media panicked. Reports said we're pausing, so we must be in trouble, we're running out of ammo, food and even water. There aren't enough troops. The war plan was wrong, and we have to stop, we're in Vietnam, another quagmire. The media were proven so wrong so quickly and so decisively that even they were embarrassed and they've never forgiven Rumsfeld for it. Their revenge is in the contrivance of fables about him.

The first myth was that Rumsfeld refused to put enough troops into the Tora Bora region to capture bin Laden, that we'd "subcontracted" bin Laden's capture to unreliable Afghan tribal leaders, resulting in his escape. Gen. Tommy Franks, CENTCOM commander, debunked that in an op-ed in October 2004, but the media persisted. In a November 2004 interview Marine Lt. Gen. Mike "Rifle" Delong, Gen. Franks's second in command, told me, "Somebody could have made that statement, but it sure as hell wasn't the people who fought the war." But DeLong's and Franks's facts weren't consistent with the media narrative, so the myth is perpetuated. Just like the 527 Media's metaphysical certainty that Rumsfeld didn't get along with the military and disregarded the senior generals' counsel.

"Rifle" DeLong had a few choice words about that as well. "...We had these discussions with [the Joint Chiefs of Staff] and we also had them with the Secretary [Rumsfeld] and the Secretary agreed with us." What he described for the Afghanistan operations was the usual process with plans developed in debates - some heated, some not - between professionals. What DeLong told me then I have confirmed over and over in discussions with other senior military leaders. Rumsfeld is a tough guy to work for, but he absorbs - and mostly follows -- the advice of senior military leaders. If anything he's too tolerant of rebellious generals. Eric Shinseki should have been fired (and might have been but for the fact of his family connections to Hawaii Sen. Dan Inouye).

The greatest fable about Rumsfeld's tenure was the so-called "generals' revolt" contrived by the 527 Media in apparent collusion with the Democrats. The political maneuver -- culminating in the phony "congressional hearing" held by Democrats during the 2006 campaign - is the most fascinating of all the myths. The statements and media appearances of the "rebelling" generals were obviously coordinated. The questions I posed last July about the media's collusion with the Democrats and the generals haven't been answered. Which Democrat "war room" ran this operation? Why did the generals get a free ride, exempted from the tough questions they should have had to answer? And that gives rise to ethical questions about the 527 media that will some day be answered.

In conversations with a retired officer who was a member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff at the time, he told me - and said the other Joint Chiefs would affirm - that none of the "rebel" generals had raised their newly-advertised concerns about Rumsfeld's Iraq plans and operations while they were on active duty. None of the media asked about this dereliction of duty: why didn't these generals raise Cain over their supposedly-heartfelt criticisms through the chain of command while they were in a position to do so? The media didn't seek or tell the truth about the generals. That's the real story behind the story.

Few know that in early 2003 - a month or more before the Iraq invasion - President Bush was presented with two plans for post-war Iraq. The first, written by CIA Director George Tenet and Secretary of State Colin Powell, provided for a long occupation of Iraq and the nation-building that the president renounced in his 2000 campaign. The second, a Pentagon plan authored by Rumsfeld's team, provided for the establishment of a provisional government before the invasion and American withdrawal within months of Saddam's overthrow. The president, convinced by Powell that "if you break it, you own it", chose the Powell-Tenet plan and ordered Rumsfeld to carry it out.

When Baghdad fell, after the brief tenure of Gen. Jay Garner, the president appointed L. Paul Bremer III to govern Iraq under Rumsfeld's direction. But Bremer proved to be a loose cannon, endlessly circling around from Powell to Rice to the president to get permission to do whatever Rumsfeld didn't agree with. One Pentagon official involved closely told me Bremer's tenure was disastrous because of his continuing reliance on the group surrounding Adnan Pachachi, an old-time Sunni whose persuasion of Bremer to leave Sunni militants alone was one of the principal reasons the Sunni insurgency was able to gain strength. Bremer's decisions to disband the Iraqi army and delay the outlay of reconstruction funds alienated Iraqis almost completely. At about that time, the media began contriving the myths of Rumsfeld and Iraq.

All of those myths combined, in the minds of some defeated Republicans, to blame Mr. Rumsfeld for the election debacle of November. But that overlooks the facts presented by the Zogby poll in late October that showed 49% of Americans wanted the president to retain Rumsfeld, against 42% who wanted him gone. When that poll was taken, the president's job approval numbers were about ten points lower than Rumsfeld's "stay or go" polls.

In his Tuesday confirmation hearing, Dr. Gates said he was surprised at how much transformation of the military had actually been accomplished. He will be more surprised at how the media has transformed itself since he last served in government. He can learn a lot from studying how the media has treated his predecessor. If he studies no other lesson, he should look at the "Rumsfeld refuses to testify" story that the AP manufactured last summer. (There's another story in that incident, too. Rahm Emanuel used to issue press releases calling for people's resignations. Whose idea was the AP string of stories, centered around Hillary Clinton, culminating in her call for Rumsfeld's resignation? Did AP reporters - or editors - collude with Democrats to write and time the stories?)

Gates will have a very short media honeymoon. If he doesn't bring the Iraq war to a quick close - which he, the Pentagon and the White House agree can't be done without surrendering it to the enemy - he'll soon enough be the subject of the same kind of contrived news stories. Welcome to the world of the 527 Media, Dr. Gates. If you don't toe the Baker-Hamilton line, you'll soon be subject to the same treatment your predecessor received. You may even so enrage NYT columnist Maureen Dowd that she will write a poem excoriating you, as she did about Rumsfeld two Decembers ago. It's a badge of honor you may yet earn.

Dr. Gates will realize, as Mr. Rumsfeld undoubtedly has, that the daily media-bashing comes from the ankle-biters, the politically-active media that history will ignore. And that's why Rumsfeld will be smiling when he takes his leave.

Jed Babbin was a deputy undersecretary of defense in the George H.W. Bush administration. He is a contributing editor to The American Spectator and author of Showdown: Why China Wants War with the United States (with Edward Timperlake, Regnery 2006) and Inside the Asylum: Why the UN and Old Europe are Worse than You Think (Regnery 2004).

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