War Stories

Rumsfeld’s Free Pass on Iraq

Senators didn’t ask, weren’t told.

Donald Rumsfeld

It’s a tossup which is more galling: that Donald Rumsfeld digs himself a few feet deeper with each remark he makes before a congressional committee, or that his interrogators don’t seem to notice.

Take this morning’s hearing before the Senate appropriations committee, at which Rumsfeld appeared alongside not only the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the commander of U.S. forces in Iraq but also Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. The two Cabinet secretaries appeared jointly—an unusual event—to make the case for President Bush’s $65 billion request for emergency funding to sustain the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

You’d think this would be a prime opportunity for Capitol Hill’s top overseers to grill the Bush administration’s top decision-makers on where they think the wars are going, the prospects for troop withdrawal or deeper immersion, the interplay of risks, opportunities, and budgets.

Think again.

Sen. Robert Byrd, the ranking Democrat, posed some pertinent questions, or started to anyway. What are our plans, he asked, if all-out civil war erupts in Iraq? Will our troops hunker down, will they withdraw? If not, which side will they fight on? Do we have plans for such a contingency?

Rumsfeld replied, “The plan is to prevent a civil war and, to the extent one were to occur, to have the Iraqi security forces deal with it, to the extent they are able to.”

That’s not a plan, and Rumsfeld must know it. He even, wittingly or not, left an opening in his reply—Iraqi security forces will deal with it, “to the extent they are able to“—that any high-school debater would have plowed through with gusto. “To what extent are they able to?” would have been one decent follow-up (especially since U.S. officials in the field have noted that many of these security forces have stronger allegiances to ethnic factions than to a central government).

But nobody followed up.

Rumsfeld was asked about the Zogby poll reporting that 72 percent of American troops serving in Iraq think the United States should pull out within a year. He replied that he hadn’t examined the poll, that he’d only read about it in the newspapers, and that he didn’t believe it anyway, because every soldier he’s talked with over there is enthusiastic about the mission.

Two reasonable follow-up questions that no senator bothered to pose:

  • Do you really think, given the way you’ve hounded generals and colonels who dare disagree with you, that some enlisted man or woman is going to tell you we should get out?
  • Maybe the poll is flawed, but don’t you even want to take a look at the thing? If it really does reflect the thinking of a majority of troops, shouldn’t you be aware of that?

On the larger strategic questions, too, Rumsfeld’s testimony eschewed logic and fact. In his opening statement, he likened the Bush administration’s war on terrorism to the visionary programs and institutions that Harry Truman’s team put in place at the outset of the Cold War—the Marshall Plan, the Truman Doctrine, NATO, and the World Bank, “to name a few.” These creations, Rumsfeld said:

[M]ay seem, to people not rooted in history, a part of a carefully crafted, broadly supported structure, leading inevitably to victory in the Cold War. But of course, things were not that way at all. In fact, these were days of heated disagreement. Yet together, our national leaders of both political parties … understood that a Cold War had been declared on our country—on the Free World—whether we liked it or not. That we had to steel ourselves against an expansionist enemy, the Soviet Union, that was determined to destroy our way of life. Though this era is different, and though the enemy today is different, that is our task today. We must fashion new approaches to enable us to work … in ways unimagined before, and to partner with other nations, if we are to defeat this peril to our way of life.

The question practically screams out (though nobody so much as whispered it): Where are your Marshall Plans and NATOs and World Banks? Where are your plans to work “in ways unimagined before” to defeat this new adversary? Why is Rumsfeld comparing himself and his colleagues to the likes of George Marshall, Dean Acheson, George Kennan, Paul Nitze, and Truman himself, when they so clearly come up short?

And speaking of people “rooted in history,” as Rumsfeld put it, what on earth compelled him to make this comment (again, in his opening statement):

The enemy cannot win a single conventional battle, so they challenge us through non-traditional, asymmetric means, using terror as their weapon of choice.

He read these lines as if the first clause were a boast and the second clause were an accusation of unfair behavior. Doesn’t Rumsfeld remember the famous story about Col. Harry G. Summers’ conversation at the four-party military talks in Hanoi in April 1975, just after President Gerald Ford conceded defeat in the Vietnam War? Col. Summers, then the chief of the U.S. delegation’s negotiating team, was chatting with his North Vietnamese counterpart, Col. Tu. “You know, you never defeated us on the battlefield,” Col. Summers said. “That may be so,” Col. Tu replied, “but it’s also irrelevant.”

Leave it to Rumsfeld to invoke memories of Vietnam as others in the administration are trying to dispel such comparisons. Leave it to the Senate to miss the slip-up.