Monday, May 10, 2004

Should He Stay or Should He Go? 

President Bush has issued another statement of confidence in Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld today:
Bush praised Rumsfeld saying, "You are doing a superb job. You are a strong secretary of defense, and our nation owes you a debt of gratitude."
But not all non-Presidents agree. The developing scandal over the horrifying behavior of US troops at the Abu Ghraib prison has generated calls for Rumsfeld's resignation from Democratic leaders including Sen. Joe Biden, the editorial pages of the Economist and, surprisingly, the Army Times. This last editorial, by the way, is well worth your time to read.

It's probably too soon to tell whether Rumsfeld will hold on to his office or not (although if you want to bet on it, online bookies have your action covered). But would a Rumsfeld resignation be a good thing, either on the merits or in terms of politics? What would be accomplished if our President actually had the guts to fire him?

Pro-war pundit Andrew Sullivan has pointed out exactly why the Abu Ghraib fiasco is serious enough to merit considering showing Rumsfeld the door:
The narrative of liberation was critical to the success of the mission - politically and militarily. This was never going to be easy, but it was worth trying. It was vital to reverse the Islamist narrative that pitted American values against Muslim dignity. The reason Abu Ghraib is such a catastrophe is that it has destroyed this narrative. It has turned the image of this war into the war that the America-hating left always said it was: a brutal, imperialist, racist occupation, designed to humiliate another culture. Abu Ghraib is Noam Chomsky's narrative turned into images more stunning, more damaging, more powerful than a million polemics from Ted Rall or Susan Sontag. It is Osama's dream propaganda coup. It is Chirac's fantasy of vindication. It is Tony Blair's nightmare. And, whether they are directly responsible or not, the people who ran this war are answerable to America, to America's allies, to Iraq, for the astonishing setback we have now encountered on their watch.

The one anti-war argument that, in retrospect, I did not take seriously enough was a simple one. It was that this war was noble and defensible but that this administration was simply too incompetent and arrogant to carry it out effectively. I dismissed this as facile Bush-bashing at the time. I was wrong... The job is immense; and many of us have rallied to the administration's defense in difficult times, aware of the immense difficulties involved. But to have allowed the situation to slide into where we now are, to have a military so poorly managed and under-staffed that what we have seen out of Abu Ghraib was either the result of a) chaos, b) policy or c) some awful combination of the two, is inexcusable. It is a betrayal of all those soldiers who have done amazing work, who are genuine heroes, of all those Iraqis who have risked their lives for our and their future, of ordinary Americans who trusted their president and defense secretary to get this right. To have humiliated the United States by presenting false and misleading intelligence and then to have allowed something like Abu Ghraib to happen - after a year of other, compounded errors - is unforgivable. By refusing to hold anyone accountable, the president has also shown he is not really in control. We are at war; and our war leaders have given the enemy their biggest propaganda coup imaginable, while refusing to acknowledge their own palpable errors and misjudgments. They have, alas, scant credibility left and must be called to account. Shock has now led - and should lead - to anger. And those of us who support the war should, in many ways, be angrier than those who opposed it.
It's tough to argue with Sullivan here, but I don't think he has made a case for Rumsfeld's resignation so much as Bush's. At this point, what purpose would be served by getting Rumsfeld's head? Would it balance out some moral scales? Would it regain any lost legitimacy for this country or this administration? Would it change the mind of any foreign citizen whose revulsion at Abu Ghraib hasn't yet hardened into anti-American sentiment? Would it alter the electoral landscape in the US?

Jeff Altworth at The American Street has this to say:
Strategically, I question the value of firing a Defense Secretary six months before an election. Things are critical in Iraq now, and the distraction and vacuum created by his departure won't improve things in the short term. In fact, it's a lot easier to see how the absentee oversight of the past year will only worsen if Rummy gets the ax. There's a certain calculation here--I wouldn't make this argument if I thought Bush was going to win re-election.

Also, I don't think it helps Democrats to score a political victory. Their target isn't Rumsfeld per se, but the policies of the Bush administration. Trying to get Rummy fired is an effort to win a symbolic victory at the expense of the ideological war. Rummy is a footsoldier in the neocon rationale for invading Iraq; while getting him fired would be a rebuke of that rationale, it would remain symbolic. It's far more potent politically to have the shamed Rumsfeld in the administration where he is an ongoing symbol of Bush's Iraq failure. Remove him and the Bushies can move on. Keep him, and you have a constant reminder that this administration let torture happen (or worse--encouraged it).

The one mitigating argument, and it's a very good one, is that the world needs to see Rummy's head on a plate. I agree that the biggest consequence of this debacle is our damaged standing in the world--and therefore our increased vulnerability to terrorists. But firing Rummy won't actually change the policies that have enraged the world. The key neocons--Cheney, Condi, Wolfowitz--are still guiding policy. Rummy was actually an old cold warrior--more a Kissinger type than a neocon. Firing him may please the world, but it could have grave consequences in removing heat on the abysmal policy rationales that got us here in the first place.

Rummy's ultimately responsible for the torture. But firing him won't prevent similar abuses in the future. Perversely, keeping him on the job may.
On the one hand, I'm inclined to agree with Alworth: taking the long view, a resignation (or better yet a firing) may not accomplish much. On the other hand, there are a couple of facts worth addressing which militate in the other direction.

First, somebody is going to get fired for this. At this point, we know that some of the actual perpetrators are being court-martialed: if no one higher up the chain of the command is held accountable, though, the troop morale implications alone are tough to swallow. The logical stopping point here is Rumsfeld. William Safire and others disagree, saying that the only reasons to remove Rumsfeld would be if he ordered the actions or tried to cover them up, but I think it's clear that monitoring of one's underlings is also in the job description. Furthermore, there's a strong case to be made that Rumsfeld set the tone that led, more or less inexorably, to Abu Ghraib, as the Washington Post's editorial page has convincingly argued here and here.

Second, while it's tough to see how policy would be different over the next few months with or without Rumsfeld as Secretary, the spectacle of his being ushered out of office peacefully may serve to reassure somebody somewhere that democratic norms are still respected in this country. I can't believe it's come to a point where that's a worthwhile argument, but sadly, here we are.

Third, to the extent that this becomes an ongoing story, and to the extent that it creates uncertainty at the Pentagon over whether Rumsfeld will continue to be the boss or not, US defense policy clearly suffers. I don't know how to turn this point into a valuable insight except to say that the case for Rumsfeld's departure grows stronger every day that people outside the fringe keep discussing it, if only because of the distraction/uncertainty factor.

Finally, there is nothing like a dramatic gesture to indicate that there is, indeed, something afoot. While it might seem like firing Rumsfeld would allow Bush to make a clean break with the scandal, as Bush (or somebody at the White House) has evidently concluded, there's a downside as well from a media/politics perspective. The presence of the events of Abu Ghraib in media accounts of American politics is likely to be lengthened if Rumsfeld resigns, if only because of the spate of stories about the new guy and how he got his job.

UPDATE: Billmon has more on the political side of the question.

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