Donald Rumsfeld gave every grunt in the Army a good reason to hate him today.
At a cavernous hangar in Camp Buehring, Kuwait, the secretary of defense appeared before 2,300 soldiers to boost their morale before they headed off to Iraq. During a question-and-answer period, Army Spc. Thomas Wilson of the 278th Regimental Combat Team, a unit that consists mainly of reservists from the Tennessee Army National Guard, spoke up to complain about their inadequate supply of armor.
“Why do we soldiers have to dig through local landfills for pieces of scrap metal and compromised ballistic glass to up-armor our vehicles?” Wilson asked, setting off what the Associated Press described as “a big cheer” from his comrades in arms.
Rumsfeld paused, asked Wilson to repeat the question, then finally replied, “You go to war with the army you have.” Besides, he added, “You can have all the armor in the world on a tank and it can be blown up.”
Such a leader of men.
Rumsfeld’s answer was, first, unforgivably glib, reminiscent of his shrugged line about the looting in the days after Saddam’s fall (“Stuff happens”), but more shocking because here he was addressing American soldiers who are still fighting and dying, 20 months after Baghdad’s fall, as a result of Rumsfeld’s decisions.
More than that, his answer was wrong. If you’re attacked by surprise, you go to war with the army you have. But if you’ve planned the war a year in advance and you initiate the attack, you have the opportunity—and obligation—to equip your soldiers with what they’ll need. Yes, some soldiers will get killed no matter the precautions, but the idea is to heighten their odds—or at least not diminish them—as they’re thrust into battle.
So here stands the secretary of defense, long and widely despised by officers for rejecting their advice before the war and now openly criticized by the grunts for failing to give them proper cover as the war rages on all around them.
And yet Rumsfeld is the one Cabinet secretary who has received explicit assurances that he will keep his job, with President Bush’s full confidence, into the second term.
Last month, the day after Bush won re-election, I wrote that he now faced a test. He could rouse himself out of his campaign mode, take a serious look at the world, face up to mistakes he might have made, and do something to correct them—or he could stay mired in fantasy. One sign of which way he was headed would be whether he fired Rumsfeld and his neocon entourage or let them stay. He has now taken that test, and we all see the grim results.
Rumsfeld has not merely made mistakes, he has made fatal mistakes. Defense secretaries don’t decide whether to go to war, but they do decide how to fight the war once it begins. Even most supporters of the war in Iraq acknowledge that Rumsfeld has fought it in a disastrous manner. The litany of errors has been recited many times—distorting prewar intelligence about weapons of mass destruction, whittling down troop levels that the Army chiefs recommended for postwar stability, torpedoing State Department plans for occupation, alienating traditional allies whose assistance is now desperately needed, covering up crimes at Abu Ghraib.
What lessons are the new Cabinet officers to derive from Rumsfeld’s retention? It’s one thing for a president to demand a Cabinet that follows consistent policies. (Among Jimmy Carter’s failures was his hesitation to take out the long knives and choose between his dovish secretary of state, Cyrus Vance, and his hawkish national security, Zbigniew Brzezinski.) It’s another thing to demand a Cabinet so loyal and pliant that its members never dare raise arguments, doubts, or questions about the president’s leanings.
Rumsfeld’s survival—which, given Colin Powell’s dismissal, amounts to triumph—tells the newcomers that to get along they must go along; that they’re working not in a government but in an echo chamber.