Rummy’s not going anywhere … yet

U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld speaking to reporters on Tuesday. Yuri Gripas / Reuters file

Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld is not about to resign amid the furor over mistreatment of Iraqis in American-run jails. A senior Democrat, Sen. Joe Biden of Delaware, raised the idea this week, and he was joined Thursday by others, including Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa and House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi of California. Beyond the Democrats, many moderate Republicans who extended copious credit to the Pentagon chief since Sept. 11, including the chairman of the Armed Services Committee, John Warner, are making public statements to the effect that Rumsfeld’s job may be in question.

But among those in power, the idea of Rumsfeld’s resigning at this juncture, and over this incident, is not taken seriously. Sure, President Bush dressed down Rumsfeld, but the president has little political option but to remain faithful to his defense secretary. For Rumsfeld is not merely the architect and chief spokesman for the Iraq war; he is the embodiment of it.

‘Appropriate steps’
Indeed, even as the White House let it be known that the president was angry that Rumsfeld did not tell him months ago about the photographs of the Iraqi prisoners being abused, officials there and at the Pentagon underlined the unique situation Rumsfeld finds himself in. "There is no way Rumsfeld would be asked to resign, and no way a Rumsfeld resignation would be accepted," says a White House military adviser, requesting anonymity. "There is too much at stake for the SecDef to go down over the mistakes of prison guards."

Inside the Pentagon, the feeling is similar. One official referred to Rumsfeld’s college wrestling days and noted that, before Sept. 11, he was named by Time magazine as the first Bush Cabinet secretary likely to be fired — a status he long ago avoided.

"The secretary was a champion wrestler, and being on your back is part of the game sometimes," says a defense official, requesting anonymity. "But remember, you get big points for reversing your opponent, too." He described Bush’s dressing down of Rumsfeld as an effort "to show that appropriate steps are being taken" to address the lack of information given to Congress.

Trial balloon or ‘Hail Mary’?
The resignation suggestion from Biden, a centrist Democrat who supported the decision to topple Saddam’s regime, might be looked at as a trial balloon — or, viewed from the other side of the Washington hate machine, perhaps as a "Hail Mary pass." Outside the Beltway, Democrats, Republicans and fair-minded non-partisan citizens, too, understand that the onus on Rumsfeld in the disgraceful prisoner abuse episode is to ensure that investigations are carried out, punishments enforced and reforms implemented. He also must continue to make himself available and to explain why Congress had to find out about this by reading The New Yorker. But Congress long ago ceased to be an effective check or player in the foreign policy of the Bush administration. Just ask Richard Lugar, the Republican who runs the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, who says he has not been invited to a single high-level policy-making meeting during Bush’s term.

Horrible as the prisoner abuses may be, they need to remain in context, and Americans need to consult their own wartime history. In the closing days of World War II, for instance, hundreds of German POWs died of starvation and related diseases in U.S.- and British-run prisons due to a mix of criminal negligence and the chaos of the collapsed European economy. The episode helped instill in Allied postwar policy-makers a deep determination to prevent Europe’s civilians — and Germany’s in particular — from suffering the same deprivations that followed World War I. But did Eisenhower resign? Marshall? Secretary of War Henry Stimson? Be serious.

The longer view
Rumsfeld need not fear an appearance next week before a rightly indignant Senate Armed Services Committee. Nor, in spite of being forced to take to the airwaves to explain the fiasco, is Bush going to demand his head on a plate. The senators on this committee, with the exception of Democrats Carl Levin and Ted Kennedy, kept their own counsel over the past 18 months as the defense secretary and his team made decisions, put forth propositions and proffered intelligence on WMD and links to al-Qaida that immediately raised red flags among experienced intelligence professionals and military commanders both on duty and retired.

The Iraq war — ideologically, doctrinally and strategically — was hatched in Rumsfeld’s Pentagon. He is the Cabinet member whose team produced the intelligence that justified the war, who repeatedly rejected war plans devised by military commanders as being too heavy in manpower and conservative in tactics; who insisted that the lack of international support would not be a challenge to the postwar legitimacy of the mission; who dogged the Army’s chief of staff, Gen. Eric Shinsheki, into early retirement when he dared to suggest that at least 200,000 troops would be needed to safely occupy Iraq; who promoted a rosy vision of postwar Iraq on the advice of the Pentagon’s favorite Iraqi exile, Ahmed Chalabi, in which Iraqis would greet GIs with flowers and kisses.

Rumsfeld’s deputies are the primary movers behind the most controversial aspects of the war.

Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz authored the "grand strategy" that justified it strategically — the notion that a democracy could be implanted in Iraq that would light a fire for freedom that would sweep across the moribund Arab world.

The deputy defense secretary for intelligence, a new post created by Rumsfeld and given to his longtime aide Steve Cambone, created the small team of intelligence analysts tasked with challenging the prevailing conclusions of U.N. inspection teams with regard to Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction programs.

Douglas Feith, the undersecretary of defense for policy, was the primary mover behind a decision immediately denounced by military professionals and now seen as the most serious mistake of the war: disbanding the Iraqi military and sending a million men home with their guns to stew, mostly idle and unemployed, in postwar bitterness.

The ‘disbanded’ enemy
These questions are being put to Rumsfeld in recent interviews, and his answers — particularly on the issue of disbanding Saddam’s million-man mob of an army — are not typical of his lucid, slashing style. Asked in November by my NBC News colleague Tim Russert whether he regretted the decision to disband the military, Rumsfeld said: "We didn’t dismantle the military. The Iraqi army dismantled itself."

This is disingenuous at best. The order to disband the army, issued by newly arrived Coalition Provisional Authority boss Paul Bremer in May 2003, was a huge mistake, according to retired Gen. Jay Garner, the Rumsfeld favorite whom Bremer replaced. "You’re talking about a million or more people," he told the Associated Press last year, "that are suffering because the head of the household’s out of work."

Late last month, Rumsfeld got the question again from another colleague, MSNBC’s “Hardball” host, Chris Matthews:

Matthews: “I thought the army was disbanded when we came in, the Iraqi army…. I mean, the organized regular army was all disbanded? That was a mistake that was made?”

Rumsfeld: “That’s what some people are saying. It disappeared. It was gone.”

That goes beyond disingenuous. In fact, as the Washington Post and other papers established last year, a team led by former Reagan-era defense official Walter Slocombe decided on the policy in consultation with Feith, Wolfowitz and Bremer.

"This is not something that was dreamed up by somebody at the last minute and done at the insistence of people in Baghdad," Slocombe told The Post. "It was discussed."

Fate deferred
Many of the policies in place in Iraq could still, conceivably, be justified if Iraq does blossom into a democratic bastion in a miserably autocratic region. The jury remains out, though many who initially supported the war and its larger, grander strategy believe America’s challenge has gone from "winning" to "not losing."

"At this point, you better identify the point where your most vital strategic interests lay and make for it with all due haste," says retired Col. Ken Allard, a former president of the Army War College and an MSNBC military analyst. "Democracy ain’t gonna happen. A unified Iraq? Even that is a question at this point."

The original plan, Garner and other officials say, was to quickly turn around 14 to 15 battalions of Iraqi troops — some 10,000 soldiers — and put them to work on behalf of the coalition rebuilding and providing security, especially in army-friendly Sunni areas. That would be the core of the new security force needed to take the pressure off the foreign contingents.

Britain’s most senior military officer when the war started, Adm. Sir Michael Boyce, had issued an order to his commanders to negotiate with senior Iraqi commanders, many of whom sat out the war in obedience to coalition leaflets, and use their units to maintain order. British sources point to the relative calm in their segment of Iraq as evidence of the result.

So when the Armed Services Committee questions Rumsfeld about the prisoner issue Friday, clearly they will be addressing an issue far from foremost in his mind. Rumsfeld’s fingerprints are so copiously distributed over American policy toward Iraq that to zero in on an unfortunate incident of postwar occupation would be like holding the New York City Police Department responsible for 9/11. Yes, it merits questioning, and it is a tragedy for America’s battered image abroad. But the reason it is important — the reason American prison guards are holding Iraqis in the first place — is the issue that will determine Rumsfeld’s fate, both inside Washington and in the far more demanding and important realm of history books.