Rumsfeld Should Go

Rumsfeld Should Go

This editorial was originally published in the April 21, 2003 issue of The Nation.


Many political figures activists and organizations–including Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry, House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi and–are calling for Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s resignation. We took that step more than a year ago, and in our edit pointed to Rumsfeld’s rejection of concerns about treatment of Afghan and Al-Qaeda prisoners. Rumsfeld’s departure would be only the beginning, not the end, of a full accounting of who was responsible for prisoner abuses in Iraq and elsewhere. Fully mindful of that fact, we join the call for his resignation.

The Defense Secretary should resign–now. Although George W. Bush is ultimately responsible for the catastrophe unfolding in Iraq, it is Donald Rumsfeld who is the Cabinet member directly charged with planning and carrying out the nation’s wars. He should take with him those two self-inflated policy warriors, Paul Wolfowitz (his deputy) and Richard Perle (head of the Defense Policy Board until his venality was exposed). Together with Vice President Cheney, they were the principal architects of this venture, in pursuit of which they have deceived the American people, misled US soldiers whose lives are at risk, scorned the United Nations and defied international law.

We do not assume that these armchair generals will in fact resign. Instead, we present this indictment in the hope that, as Americans begin to grasp the full dimensions of the debacle in Iraq, they too will demand their removal. Citizens may also question the continued presence in government of National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice and Secretary of State Colin Powell, who were complicit in plunging our country into a war that, even if we win militarily, history will record as an unnecessary and terrible loss: We have unleashed a new era of nuclear proliferation and “pre-emption,” and we have turned a majority of the world’s people against us. These facts will not change even if Iraq’s defenses continue to crumble and the war ends quickly.

The indictment has many counts, from misrepresenting the threat posed by Iraq, to the miscalculation of human and financial costs, to the shredding of international relationships. While carefully avoiding any reckless comments himself, Rumsfeld unleashed his subordinates and advisers to publicly make the case that the fight would be easy and the troops welcomed. Perle, for example, explained flippantly that “the Iraqi opposition is kind of like an MRE [meals ready to eat, a freeze-dried Army ration]. The ingredients are there and you just have to add water, in this case US support.” Democracy cannot function without a standard of disclosure and accountability. If Rumsfeld and team had been even crudely forthcoming, the country might have resisted this bloody trap. The cowardly Congress might have paused before endorsing a premature mandate for open-ended warmaking.

The troops on the ground were misled along with their commanders. “I honestly don’t think the Iraqi public wants us here,” Chief Warrant Officer Sean McNeal said. “These people are not going to give up as easily as everyone expects.” Rumsfeld’s reaction when things turned ugly was to claim that the plans were the work of Gen. Tommy Franks and to lead an assault on the press when it reported what was happening. But this is Rumsfeld’s war for the same reason Vietnam became Robert McNamara’s. Rumsfeld seems to have forgotten, or never absorbed, what America learned at great price from that misbegotten war.

Dismissive of the UN and longtime advocates of unilateral action against Iraq (Rumsfeld argued on the day after the 9/11 terrorist attacks that Bush should “go against Iraq, not just Al Qaeda”), Rumsfeld and his coterie now dare to complain that Saddam is violating the laws of war and does not fight fair. But the “asymmetrical” tactics of the Iraqis should come as no surprise. The Vietcong did not wear uniforms either; they too hid among civilian villagers. “We are invading their country,” Chief Warrant Officer Glen Woodard observes. “I’d be by my window with a shotgun too.” Similarly, Rumsfeld, who rejected concerns about US treatment of Afghan and Al Qaeda prisoners, now invokes the Geneva conventions on the lawful treatment of prisoners of war. Has he forgotten the pictures of Afghan prisoners, their beards shorn against their religious beliefs, displayed in Guantánamo, held in a legal limbo without the protection of POW status? Or the two homicides in a US Army prison in Afghanistan, where an Army pathologist described the cause of death as “blunt force injuries”?

American leaders would be wise to avoid invoking the Geneva conventions–or better still to observe them. The central question in the minds of many millions around the world is whether the United States, in violation of the UN Charter and long-established terms of international law, is waging an illegal war. The brutality of that war becomes more apparent by the day, as the US military wreaks more death and destruction on Baghdad and other cities and the humanitarian crisis threatens to spiral out of control.

Our indictment is ultimately not about logistics or tactics. Even if US military power prevails in Iraq, what must be ended is a failed foreign policy many of whose key proponents are in the Pentagon. These officials are now working to insure that a US military proconsul, rather than the UN, runs postwar Iraq–ignoring the fact that this will be taken as further proof of US imperial designs. Instead, we must revive efforts to strengthen international law and international institutions. We have no illusions about how difficult this will be.

As a first step, Rumsfeld should go.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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