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updated 10/24/2003 7:08:47 AM ET 2003-10-24T11:08:47
ANALYSIS

Ever the clever raconteur, Donald Rumsfeld reached deep into Oxford University’s dictionary for an alternative definition of the word “slog” this week to justify his use of the word in an internal Pentagon memo describing what the United States is facing in Iraq. But as any squinting lexicographer will attest, no one takes a “slog” in the park or “slogs” through the tulips. The defense secretary’s choice of words, however casual or deliberate, has provoked a rash of hand-wringing and references to Vietnam just as the administration is completing a two-week “public relations” campaign aimed at emphasizing progress in Iraq.

Rumsfeld's witty banter aside, his words are being viewed by Republicans and Democrats, civilians and soldiers alike, as evidence that the Bush administration continues to present events in Iraq in a way that does not conform to the grim reality.

“You slog through mud,” Dick Melanson, a professor of strategic studies at the National Defense University. “And what’s a collection of mud? Some people might say it’s a quagmire — and that’s a pretty loaded term in the American dictionary.”*

The Rumsfeld memo, leaked by unknown senior defense officials to members of the Pentagon press corps earlier this week, finds the secretary asking probing questions about the progress of the war on terrorism and the post-war effort in Iraq.

In both cases, Rumsfeld characterizes the results so far as “mixed,” and, in a phrase that stands in sharp contrast to the upbeat assessments of progress that President Bush, Rumsfeld and others make regularly, he predicted “a long, hard slog” ahead.

OXFORD ENGLISH

Rumsfeld himself has denied that the memo is at odds with the administration’s public stance, and he further insists that when he wrote “slog,” he meant to impart the word’s alternative meaning — not the “hard, dogged march or tramp” of Webster’s Ninth Dictionary, but rather the a more obscure definition:

“Slog — to hit or strike hard, to drive with blows, to assail violently,” he instructed the Pentagon press corps Thursday. “And that’s precisely what the U.S. has been doing, and intends to continue to do.”

When a reporter than asked, “Is that what you thought it meant when you wrote it?” Rumsfeld answered, “It’s close enough for government work!”

NOT AMUSED

The Rumsfeld memo provided some chuckles for the Pentagon press corps, but it was not greeted as such on Capitol Hill or among the uniformed officer corps.

“I can’t imagine this is very funny to anyone who lost a loved one in Iraq,” a senior military officer told MSNBC.com, requesting anonymity. “I think it may be Rumsfeld is deliberately leaking this to change public perception and to say, ‘Hey, I’m not the one saying this is a walk in the park.’ But I think there are better ways to tell the public this is going to take a long time and a lot of boys’ lives.”

Sen. John McCain, the Arizona Republican who spent years in a Vietnamese prisoner-of-war camp, also expressed concern. McCain has repeatedly challenged Rumsfeld and other officials at Senate hearings about what the senator has called an “obviously inadequate” number of U.S. troops in Iraq, contending the force is being kept small for ideological and political reasons that have nothing to do with military calculations.

Democrats in Congress described the memo as a vindication of their view that the administration has exaggerated about Iraq from the beginning — first on the nature of the threat posed by Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction programs, and now on the prognosis for a successful transition to democracy.

On Thursday, following publication of Rumsfeld’s memo, McCain told The New York Times: “I think that up until the memo was leaked they were giving too rosy a scenario. After I came back from Iraq, I thought things were not as good as the administration was painting but not as bad as some were alleging. The leaked memo, I think, puts things into a better perspective than the briefings we’ve had from them.”

A Republican congressman who serves on the House Armed Services Committee adds, “the disconnect between what we have been told repeatedly and what Rumsfeld says in that memo just can’t be laughed off. With American kids dying over there, someone at some point is going to say, ‘wait a minute. This is just what happened during Vietnam’. I don’t think the comparison is valid, but we can’t afford to be misleading the public.”

COMPARISONS GALORE

In fact, a number of former generals whose careers included decorated tours of duty in Vietnam, already have made that point.

“We cannot spin [the American people] into a policy that will always entail unanticipated risks, bloodshed and tradeoffs on the domestic agenda,” writes retired Gen. Barry McCaffery in an article entitled “Lessons Learned” in the current edition of American Legion magazine. “There was a lack of honesty on the part of our Vietnam-era political and military leadership.”

Melanson, whose pupils at the defense university are senior American military officers, says those lessons don’t necessarily resonate with the current generation of military officers.

“Most of the students I have entered the military in the early 1980s, and they remember bad things — the Lebanon bombing, Somalia,” he says, “But the lesson they took is that humanitarian missions are to be avoided. They don’t have the same fear of losing public support” that the preceding generation of officers came away with.

Only two weeks after Bush complained about the national media acting as a “filter” that removed good news about the Iraq war, the Rumsfeld memo is particularly poorly timed for White House purposes.

“They got a quick bump in their poll numbers after they launched the pr campaign and starting giving interviews to news outlets that didn’t ask the critical questions,” says a defense official who requested anonymity. “That’s all fine, but maybe it’s not such a bad thing that the message not get too far out in front of the situation on the ground.”

Rumsfeld, the official said, “is dead right this time. No matter how you define ‘slog,’ we’re going to be doing a lot of it for a long time.”

(*Dick Melanson’s comments are his own views and not those of the Department of Defense.)

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