Thursday, December 09, 2004

Rumsfeld can't wriggle off the hook | ajc.com

Rumsfeld can't wriggle off the hook | ajc.com: "Rumsfeld can't wriggle off the hook

Published on: 12/09/04
After the Atlanta Falcons were humiliated 27-0 last week by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Falcons coach Jim Mora reacted like a true leader: He took the blame himself so that none would fall on his players, attributing the loss to his own inexperience in preparing teams for Sunday in the NFL.

"What the heck," he told a news conference. "I'm a rookie head coach, man."

Mora also declined an invitation to identify specific players who contributed to the embarrassing defeat.

"Let's just say that we don't air our dirty laundry in public," he said. "It does happen [privately], but it doesn't happen for everyone to see because it doesn't need to."

The contrast between that stand-up leadership style and that of U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld could not be more stark.

It has become crystal clear to all but the willfully blind that the failure to commit enough troops to the occupation of Iraq contributed significantly to the rising chaos in that country. However things turn out, history will record that decision as a fundamental mistake that endangered the success of the mission and led to increased casualties.

But in recent interviews, Rumsfeld has tried to wash his hands of any responsibility for that mistake.

"The big debate about the number of troops is one of those things that's really out of my control," Rumsfeld said recently. "I mean, everyone likes to assign responsibility to the top person, and I guess that's fine. But the number of troops we had for the invasion was the number of troops that General [Tommy] Franks and General [John] Abizaid wanted, the number of troops we have had every day since has been the number of troops that the field commander thought appropriate."

In other words, Rumsfeld's defense is that he was just following orders . . . from his subordinates.

That's reprehensible, for a couple of reasons. First, a good leader does not dump public blame on those who have no opportunity or, in the case of uniformed officers, even the right to defend themselves. That's particularly true when the people involved are soldiers in the field watching their own subordinates fight and die.

But the worst thing about Rumsfeld's denial of responsibility is that it is a blatant lie. He was without doubt the driving force behind the decision to keep the invading and occupying forces as lean as possible, and any effort to dump that responsibility on others amounts to cowardice on his part.

According to the former head of U.S. Central Command, retired Marine Gen. Anthony Zinni, the Pentagon plan for invading and occupying Iraq when Rumsfeld took office had just been updated in 2000 and called for a force of roughly 400,000 troops. It was Rumsfeld, enamored with the possibility of using technology to do more with less, who ordered that plan redrawn time and again to dramatically reduce the number of troops involved.

A month before the invasion, when Army Chief of Staff Eric Shinseki was asked by Congress how many troops it would take to occupy Iraq, he told the truth: hundreds of thousands of troops. Almost immediately, Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz memorably proclaimed that estimate "wildly off the mark," with Rumsfeld concurring it was "far off the mark." The two made it clear that Shinseki had disgraced himself, a point driven home when Army Secretary Thomas White was forced from office after coming to Shinseki's defense.

By those actions, Rumsfeld made it as clear as possible to officers down the line that he did not want to hear a word about needing more troops and that to argue otherwise would affect careers. In fact, in the months before the invasion and in the immediate afterglow of its success, Rumsfeld basked in his role as architect of the remarkably small force that took Iraq, dismissing concern about the resulting chaos as "henny-penny the sky is falling . . . just unbelievable."

Rumsfeld and his colleagues should have been fired long ago for incompetence and bad judgment. He should be fired now for poor leadership. The fact that he has been asked to stay on bodes poorly for the second Bush administration — and for the country."

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