TWO REPUBLICAN ADMINISTRATIONS ago, the mantra of conservatives was "Let Reagan be Reagan." Apparently President Bush has decided to let Rumsfeld be Rumsfeld — even when Bush himself is no longer the Bush who taunted Iraqi insurgents with "Bring 'em on!" and posed in front of a banner proclaiming "Mission Accomplished."
In a cranky speech Tuesday to an American Legion audience, Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld compared critics of U.S. policy in Iraq to those who sought to appease Hitler before World War II. For good measure, Rumsfeld suggested (echoing Jeane Kirkpatrick's liberal-bashing speech at the 1984 Republican National Convention) that those same critics "blame America first."
One effect of Rumsfeld's outburst was to serve as a reminder that he is still in office. Once the public face of the war in Iraq, he lately has been AWOL from the administration's public advocacy, ceding the spotlight to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. The assumption was that, although Rumsfeld remained fireproof, his cocksure contempt for criticism was out of favor now that Bush has acknowledged that the prolonged U.S. presence in Iraq is "straining the psyche of our country."
Maybe Rumsfeld never got the memo, or, if he did, he crumpled it up. His speech was vintage Rumsfeld. It was also unfair and, in places, inane.
Take the suggestion that critics of Bush's Iraq policy are the moral equivalent of those who refused to stop Hitler. There's a reason why high school debaters are warned away from Nazi analogies: They're almost always disproportionate. Even Bush, who recently raised eyebrows by identifying "Islamic fascism" as America's enemy, stopped short of referring to critics of his policies as latter-day Neville Chamberlains.
Even more offensive is Rumsfeld's "blame America first" canard. Who exactly has been pushing what he called "the destructive view that America — not the enemy — is the real source of the world's troubles"? Certainly no one in mainstream American political discourse, not even those members of Congress who want to set a date for the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq. Their argument, right or wrong, is that Iraq is descending into civil war and that the U.S. presence there is unavailing and a drain on resources better expended elsewhere, including on counter-terrorism at home.
The Bush administration can and should respond to that argument without recourse to overheated analogies and straw men like the "blame America first" crowd. Rumsfeld is obviously unwilling to step down. Could he at least pipe down?