by Richard Holbrooke, Washinton Post. Published April 16, 2006
The calls by a growing number of recently retired senior generals for the resignation of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld is the most serious public confrontation between the military and an administration since President Harry S. Truman fired Gen. Douglas MacArthur in 1951. In that epic drama, Truman was unquestionably correct — MacArthur, the commanding general in Korea and a towering World War II hero, publicly questioned Truman’s strategy in Korea and had to be removed. Most Americans rightly revere the principle of civilian control over the military. But this situation — to be more accurate, this crisis in civilian-military leadership — is quite different.
First, it is clear that the retired generals — six so far, with more sure to come — are speaking for their former colleagues, friends and subordinates who are still inside. In the tight world of senior active and retired generals, there is constant private dialogue. Recent retirees stay in close touch with old friends, who were often their subordinates; they help each other, they know what is going on and a conventional wisdom is formed. Retired Marine Lt. Gen. Greg Newbold, who was director of operations for the Joint Chiefs of Staff during the planning period for the war in Iraq, made this clear in an extraordinary article in Time magazine this past week when he said he was writing “with the encouragement of some still in positions of military leadership.” He went on to “challenge those still in uniform . . . to give voice to those who can’t — or don’t have the opportunity to — speak.”
These generals are not newly minted doves or covert Democrats. (In fact, one of the main reasons this public explosion did not happen earlier was probably concern by the generals that they would seem to be taking sides in domestic politics.) These are career men, each with more than 30 years in service, who swore after Vietnam that, as Colin Powell wrote in his memoirs, “when our turn came to call the shots, we would not quietly acquiesce in half-hearted warfare for half-baked reasons.” Yet, as Newbold admits, it did happen again. In the public comments of the retired generals one can hear a faint sense of guilt that, having been taught as young officers that the Vietnam-era generals failed to stand up to Defense Secretary Robert McNamara and President Lyndon Johnson, they did the same thing.
Second, it is also clear that the target is not just Rumsfeld. Newbold hints at this; others are more explicit in private. But the only two people in the government higher than the secretary of defense are the president and vice president. They cannot be fired, of course, and the unspoken military code normally precludes direct public attacks on the commander in chief when troops are under fire. (There are exceptions to this rule, of course: Gen. George McClellan vs. Lincoln, and Maj. Gen. John Singlaub, who was fired for attacking President Jimmy Carter over Korea policy. But they are rare enough to be memorable, and none of these solo rebellions metastasized into a group, a movement — in effect — that can fairly be described as a revolt.)
This has put President Bush and the administration in a hellish situation, and at a time when the security situation in Iraq and Afghanistan seems to be deteriorating. If Bush yields to the generals’ revolt, he will appear to have caved in to pressure from what Rumsfeld disingenuously describes as “two or three retired generals out of thousands.” But if he keeps Rumsfeld, he risks more resignations — perhaps soon, from generals who heed Newbold’s stunning call that, as officers, they took an oath to speak up and should now do so on behalf of the troops in the field and the institution that he feels is in danger of falling back into the disarray of the post-Vietnam era.
Facing this dilemma, Bush’s first reaction was exactly what anyone who knows him would have expected: He issued strong affirmations of “full support” for Rumsfeld, even going out of his way to refer to the secretary of defense as “Don” several times in his statements. (This was in marked contrast to his tepid comments on the future of his other embattled Cabinet officer, Treasury Secretary John Snow. Washington got the point.)
In the end, the case for changing the secretary of defense seems to me to be overwhelming. I do not reach this conclusion simply because of past mistakes, simply because “someone must be held accountable.” Many people besides Rumsfeld were deeply involved in the mistakes in Iraq and Afghanistan, and some of those people also remain in power, and many of those people are also in uniform.
The major reason the nation urgently needs a new defense secretary is far more urgent. Put simply, the failed strategies in Iraq and Afghanistan cannot be fixed as long as Rumsfeld remains at the epicenter of the chain of command. Rumsfeld’s famous “long screwdriver,” with which he sometimes micromanages policy, now thwarts the top-to-bottom reexamination of strategy that is absolutely essential in both war zones. Lyndon Johnson understood this in 1968 when he eased another micromanaging secretary of defense, McNamara, out of the Pentagon and replaced him with Clark M. Clifford. Within weeks, Clifford had revisited every aspect of policy and begun the long, painful process of unwinding the commitment. Today, those decisions are still the subject of intense dispute, and there are many differences between the two situations. But one thing was clear then and is clear today: If the man at the center of the military chain of command remains, the policy will not change.
That first White House reaction will not be the end of the story. If more angry generals emerge — and they will — if some of them are on active duty, as seems probable; if the situation in Iraq and Afghanistan does not turn around (and there is little reason to think it will, alas), then this storm will continue until finally it consumes not only Donald Rumsfeld. The only question is: Will it come so late that there is no longer any hope to salvage something in Iraq and Afghanistan?
Richard Holbrooke, a former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, writes a monthly column for The Post.