Saturday, November 04, 2006

"[H]ard bruising truth: Rumsfeld must go"

[Posted by reader_iam]

That's the message that the Military Times Media Group wants to send President Bush in an editorial set to appear Monday in the four newspapers it publishes: the Army Times, Air Force Times, Navy Times, and Marine Corps Times. The editorials were released Friday to a number of media outlets, the same day that some well-known neo-cons were quoted as harshly criticizing the Bush administration's handling of the war as, among other things, incompetent, according to Vanity Fair.

From the editorial:
Now, the president says he'll stick with [Donald] Rumsfeld for the balance of his term in the White House.

This is a mistake.

It is one thing for the majority of Americans to think Rumsfeld has failed. But when the nation's current military leaders start to break publicly with their defense secretary, then it is clear that he is losing control of the institution he ostensibly leads.

These officers have been loyal public promoters of a war policy many privately feared would fail. They have kept their counsel private, adhering to more than two centuries of American tradition of subordination of the military to civilian authority.

And although that tradition, and the officers' deep sense of honor, prevent them from saying this publicly, more and more of them believe it.

Rumsfeld has lost credibility with the uniformed leadership, with the troops, with Congress and with the public at large. His strategy has failed, and his ability to lead is compromised. And although the blame for our failures in Iraq rests with the secretary, it will be the troops who bear its brunt.

That's as blunt as it can get, and it is highly significant, to me at least, that this editorial is set to appear in all four of the military newspapers--and that, at least as I read it, it is pointedly not suggesting that we need to leave Iraq. Instead, the message appears to be that no matter what the path forward should be, Donald Rumsfeld ought not to be the person leading the forces down it.

That's certainly a sentiment with which I have agreed in theory for a very long time. In fact, I have said before that I think Rumsfeld should go, on and offline, but I have also said that unless his departure signals a different outlook or viewpoint on the part of the president, it might not make as much difference as people seem to think, for reasons that I have addressed (here, for example.

I am still skeptical as to how profound a change can take place if the president and his closest advisors, even apart from Rumsfeld, are still in the philosophical place that they've been maintaining and which has "informed" their judgment and choices with regard to operations, implementation and so forth. This is especially true since I'm seeing only limited acknowledgement of mistakes and errors, much less a wholesale reassessment. If a change would be a "change in face only," then I don't see how much better off we can truly be--and the situation will be further complicated by all of the typical issues and implications associated with leadership transitions, especially political ones.

HOWEVER, the Military Times Media Group editorial makes a key and significant point, and that has to do with the lost confidence of the military itself in Rumsfeld's personal leadership, which, to the degree that it is indeed widespread, certainly does render him personally severely compromised (at best) in his ability to focus and guide the institution.

Certainly we have heard a number of military leaders, especially retired ones, speak out, and on the record, against the president, his policies and his SecDef. We have also heard reports of others expressing similar off-the-record comments. But dispassionately speaking, the sentiments have to become widespread enough to represent a critical mass of loss of faith across the services and throughout the ranks for that to be compelling. There always have been internal naysayers and there always will be internal naysayers in any undertaking, including military, and the presence of a few such, in and of themselves, does not constitute a sufficient justification for change. It's the critical mass that counts. (That is true of any organization; voices raised will always be louder and attract more attention, and it only takes a few loud voices to raise a clamor. For the organization to be adjudged as seriously compromised, on the other hand, it takes not just squeaky wheels but rather the grinding thrum of an engine beginning to break down.)

I have to give the benefit of the doubt to the Military Times Media Group that its decision to publish this editorial was not taken lightly, given its constituencies. And given the outlet, I further have to believe that the information on which it based that decision had to have come from a sufficiently widespread base across and within the services as to constitute that critical mass to which I referred above.

If I believe that, then I have to believe that a change--any change--in this particular situation must constitute an improvement, if only (a very big only, to be sure) in morale and providing a renewal of faith and hope among the troops.

[Philosophically, as a general rule I don't buy into the idea that change is good just for change's sake. "Anything has to be better than this" is an attitude that I have generally found to carry tremendous potential for blowback because, well, "anything" doesn't have to be "anything," better or otherwise, so to speak. Therefore, it at least as often turns out to be worse, or a wash. But I digress.]

The Military Times Media Group's editorial, in addition to explicitly calling for Rumsfeld's departure, is also an implicit invitation to President Bush to himself reconnect with his troops, and I don't mean in the emotionally supportive meaning of the term, for which I'd wager they'd still give him high marks. In this context, I mean "reconnect" in the sense of demonstrating his understanding that in key situations, ultimately followers are better judges of a leader's personal effectiveness as a leader than the leader's boss. In short, if there's a widespread loss of faith across the military in Rumsfeld as its leader, then it wouldn't matter if he were the greatest tactician and strategist in memory (which, manifestly, he isn't). The game is up.

I think President Bush has lost sight of that universal management truth regarding leaders and followers, if indeed he ever had a good grasp of it to begin with. His statements of last Wednesday--which, to be sure, he offered in response to specific questions--amply demonstrated that, in my view. (The following summary, which I think is fair, is from the MSNBC article linked at the start of this post.)
On Wednesday, Bush had said he wants Rumsfeld and Vice President Dick Cheney to remain in his administration until the end of his presidency, extending a vote of confidence to two of the most-criticized members of his team.

In the same interview, Bush said he did not foresee a change in the immediate future in the number of U.S. troops in Iraq. He said that U.S. generals have assured him that "they've got what they can live with."

Well, what he wants is one thing, in terms of a management team with whom he's comfortable. That happens to be beside the point in the case of Rumsfeld, the constituency of whose position doesn't happen to start and stop with the president (which, loosely speaking, is the case with the role of a vice president). Despite reporting to the president, the SecDef is responsible for AND to the military, a condition of the role that is full of tension and contradiction, there can be no doubt. But there it is. At this point, it's not primarily "about" President Bush and his natural preference for a small, stable, closely held, familiar team that fits neatly in his bubble. As Commander-in-Chief, he has a duty to think about his troops, not his loyalty to his advisors nor his personal comfort needs.

I must emphasize that none of this--none of it!--affects my skepticism about how deep and pervasive of a change Rumsfeld's departure would effect with regard to the broader philosophy and issues related to the Iraq War, the WOT, potential uses of the military, and so on and so on. That's because I think the same question marks exist now as when I wrote the April post linked above ... as they did when I commented elsewhere on this topic ... as they did before I started blogging/commenting a year ago ... as they did for a long while before that.

I wish we could know, now, who we're likely to get in place of Rumsfeld, should President Bush decide to replace him (and I still think that's a big "if"). And I hope not to see significant arguments that the military should be under active-duty military, not civilian leadership, which is a whole other can of philosophical worms.

I'm plagued by nightmare visions of the implications of a potentially protracted confirmation process and the grandstanding to which we would be subjected--can there be ANY doubt of this?--during associated hearings. By definition, the smoothest transition possible can't possibly be as smooth as is desirabe and needed.

If I may state the obvious, the situation in Iraq, or Afghanistan, won't go conveniently into suspended animation during all of that, you know.

Still, if the Military Times Media Group's editorial is truly an accurate reflection of what our military, rank-and-file and leaders alike, believe and feel on a widespread, pervasive basis, then I think that all of us--regardless of where we fall on the political spectrum--should echo this phrase:

Donald Rumsfeld must go.

UPDATE: Here is the editorial posted at The Army Times. You might find it interesting to follow the comment thread in their discussion section. I certainly plan to do so, as I can.