Wednesday, December 22, 2004

Scapegoat in Chief

By David Ignatius -- ""I think Rumsfeld may be not too long for this world. . . . Let's dump him." The date was April 7, 1971; the speaker was President Richard M. Nixon. And despite Nixon's muttering about "the Rumsfeld problem" -- which in this instance was that Rummy was too critical of the Vietnam War -- the ambitious young White House aide kept his job.

The anecdote, recounted in journalist James Mann's history of the Bush national security team, "Rise of the Vulcans," illustrates several telling facts about this month's leading Washington villain. Rumsfeld is a contrarian whose arrogant manner has made him powerful enemies over the years; he's also a survivor whose political obituary has often been written prematurely.

Rumsfeld's situation recalls that of an earlier defense secretary -- Robert S. McNamara -- who struggled with a war that proved far more complicated and painful than expected. The two men share several traits that are at once strengths and weaknesses: a brilliant, intimidating intellect that comes across to many people as arrogance; a skepticism about the Pentagon's encrusted layers of power and past practice, which angers the military brass; a reluctance to play the usual Pentagon game of log-rolling and mutual back-scratching on Capitol Hill, which leaves few political defenders; and, most of all, a bold gambler's decision to go to war without fully understanding the complexities of the battlefield.

McNamara is hated by a generation of military officers who blame him for plunging the Army into a failed ground war; it's too early to know whether Rumsfeld's war will turn out as badly as Vietnam did, or whether he'll have the permanent enmity of the military, but he's certainly on his way. Similarly, McNamara and Rummy have a knack for attracting congressional criticism within their own party. Last week's parade of Republican senators calling for Rumsfeld's resignation -- John McCain, Chuck Hagel, Susan Collins, Trent Lott -- was reminiscent of the pressure from conservative Democrats on the Senate Armed Services Committee who were lobbying LBJ to dump McNamara in 1967.

The military never presented McNamara with a coherent strategy for victory against an elusive guerrilla enemy, as Gen. Bruce Palmer acknowledged in his superb history of the war. "

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