Commentary

Rumsfeld Under Fire

Some Americans are surprised to see that Donald Rumsfeld has kept his job in the face of mounting U.S. casualties in Iraq. Some have gone so far as to demand his resignation. The latest critic to publicly call for the defense secretary’s departure is William Kristol, editor of the Weekly Standard.

Given his repeated faulty prognostications about Iraq, one wonders why anyone should take these urgings seriously. The Iraq debacle that Kristol championed made what should have been an easy victory this November into a bruising electoral battle.

Despite the fact that advocates of military action against Iraq have been proved wrong repeatedly — from the assertion that Iraq was in possession of weapons of mass destruction to the belief that the Iraqi people would welcome us as liberators and tolerate a lengthy occupation of their country — they exhibit not a hint of doubt. Rather than admit that their theories are broken, neoconservatives have turned instead to criticizing the way that Rumsfeld has gone about implementing their grand plans.

These criticisms are not new. Soon after the collapse of Iraqi forces in April 2003, and within days of the president’s declaration of victory on the deck of the Abraham Lincoln, Rumsfeld intimated that the number of U.S. troops in Iraq would be cut in half by the end of the year.

The very suggestion appalled neoconservatives who agitate for a long-term military presence in the region. When Rumsfeld said the Pentagon was not planning to keep permanent bases in Iraq, Max Boot of the Council on Foreign Relations shot back, “If they’re not, they should be.” In the pages of USA Today Boot advised readers, “get used to U.S. troops being deployed [in Iraq] for years, possibly decades, to come.”

Tom Donnelly of the American Enterprise Institute agreed, predicting that “the protection of the embryonic Iraqi democracy” would be a “duty that will likely extend for decades.” Writing in the pages of the Weekly Standard, Donnelly called for a “quasi-permanent American garrison in Iraq” to protect American interests there. Donnelly elaborated in an interview with the Washington Post, saying “we have a political commitment and a huge amount of chips bet on whether political reconstruction in Iraq is going to work.”

That analogy is appropriate. Like a compulsive gambler desperate to recover his losses, neoconservative talking heads stare at the setbacks in Iraq and conclude not that theirs was a bad bet, but rather that more should be wagered.

Such advice reveals the extent to which the talking heads are out of step with average Americans, a majority of whom now express doubts about having waged war in the first place. With the cost of operations in Iraq totaling well over $200 billion since the invasion in March 2003, Kristol’s chief complaint is that we should have spent much more.

Such recommendations are very un-conservative. Not surprisingly, those in favor of a long-term Iraqi occupation are finding themselves at odds with an increasingly vocal conservative chorus anxious for a change of course in Iraq, one that does not include more U.S. troops. Syndicated columnist Robert Novak predicted in September that President Bush would seek a substantial reduction in the number of troops in Iraq early in his second term. Novak and other conservative war skeptics have been joined by such writers as William F. Buckley, Jr., George Will, and Tucker Carlson. These journalists either refrained from openly criticizing the decision to go to war or supported the toppling of Saddam but subsequently expressed grave concerns about a long-term U.S. commitment to reshape Iraqi society. They are skeptical of plans to remake the Greater Middle East.

Rumsfeld’s greatest strategic misjudgment was his belief that a long-term occupation of Iraq would not be necessary following the removal of Saddam Hussein. Had he accounted for the fact that such an investment of resources would be required, Rumsfeld might not have been so enthusiastic a supporter of a preventive war against a country that posed no imminent threat to the United States.

But while his political antenna seem to have malfunctioned during a brief interval in late 2002 and early 2003, Rumsfeld’s instincts seem eminently sound, based as they are on a more realistic assessment of the limits of American power. He has never embraced a long-term occupation of Iraq, and he has consistently, even stubbornly, insisted that the road to peace and prosperity will be paved by the Iraqi people. For this, he has faced repeated calls for his resignation.

President Bush has resisted pressure to send many more troops into the Iraqi theater. Rumsfeld’s opposition to plans to expand the size and scope of the U.S. occupation has helped to stiffen the president’s resolve.

It may be too soon to expect an end to the occupation. But if Rumsfeld is replaced by someone with more expansive plans for Iraq, we can expect an escalation of the conflict there that will surely result in more lives lost, and billions more dollars squandered.

Christopher Preble, director of foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute, is director of the task force that prepared Exiting Iraq: Why the U.S. Must End the Military Occupation and Renew the War against Al Qaeda (2004).