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To Help Restore U.S. Standing, Rumsfeld Must Take the Fall

Max Boot, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, writes a weekly column for the Los Angeles Times.

Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld’s failure to offer his resignation over the Abu Ghraib scandal is sadly typical of the lack of accountability that permeates the U.S. government.

We have suffered some catastrophic failures during the last few years. On Sept. 11, 3,000 people might have been saved if FBI, CIA, immigration and customs officers had been a little more diligent and a bit more willing to cooperate with one another. More recently, we went to war in Iraq based on the assurance of the intelligence community that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction.

How many people have been canned for these egregious cock-ups? Zero. The only government employee fired in connection with the war on terror was poor old retired Adm. John Poindexter, who had the temerity to try to come up with a computer program (with the admittedly Orwellian name Total Information Awareness) designed to prevent future 9/11s.

The one part of the government that lives by a strict credo is the military, which may be why it is one of the most respected institutions in the country.

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In the last 14 months at least 23 Navy captains have been relieved from command of their ships, effectively ending their careers. In many of these cases, the vessel in question, ranging from a tugboat to a nuclear submarine, suffered some minor accident that was not directly the captain’s fault. But, under the Navy’s rules, a commanding officer assumes responsibility for whatever happens aboard his ship, regardless of personal culpability. That doctrine should now be applied to the man in command of the U.S. military.

None of the attempts to link Rumsfeld directly to the mistreatment of prisoners in Iraq is terribly convincing. The critics would have us believe that he somehow created a “culture of abuse” by refusing to grant terrorists status as prisoners of war or even as ordinary criminal defendants. In reality, this was the only possible decision.

Under international law, anyone who fights out of uniform and outside a clear command structure is said to be an unlawful combatant. If Rumsfeld had decided to grant them POW status anyway, he would have been doing grave harm to national security, because POWs have the right not to reveal any information beyond their name, rank and serial number. That’s not acceptable when dealing with murderous thugs whose compatriots are probably plotting fresh attacks against innocent people.

Suspected terrorists should not be tortured. But they should certainly be interrogated within the limits of the law, which allows for psychological if not physical pressure.

The GIs in the Abu Ghraib abuse clearly went too far, but there is no credible evidence to date that their conduct was countenanced by the chain of command. As soon as their superiors found out what was going on, an investigation was launched and the wrongdoers were exposed. There is nothing to suggest a cover-up. The only sin Rumsfeld clearly committed was handling this whole affair ineptly from a public relations standpoint.

That’s a small slip-up, not a firing offense. What, then, is the case for Rumsfeld resigning? Simply that this scandal has caused devastating damage to America’s moral standing in the world, and we need to recover fast. Apologizing ad nauseam isn’t going to do it. Even court-martialing the perpetrators, though important, isn’t enough. We need to regain the initiative as more nightmarish pictures emerge.

Having the Defense secretary resign might salvage some good out of this house of horrors by causing Arabs to ask why their governments tolerate torture and ours doesn’t. If the resignation were coupled with other steps, such as moving up the date of Iraq’s first election and beefing up U.S. forces, it might even help to put Iraq back on track.

Against this prospect, what are the arguments for keeping Rumsfeld? Dick Cheney’s claim that “Don Rumsfeld is the best secretary of Defense the United States has ever had” doesn’t pass the laugh test. (Did former Defense Secretary Cheney mean to say that he himself wasn’t as good?)

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Rumsfeld has done many laudable things, but he has also miscalculated badly about many aspects of the Iraq occupation, and he has alienated much of the military. It is farfetched to claim that the war on terrorism would falter without him. In fact, it would do less damage to the war effort to change Defense secretaries than to give in to critics’ other demand: granting suspected terrorists fresh legal protections.

More reasonable is the concern that by throwing Rumsfeld overboard the administration might signal terminal weakness to its Democratic critics and -- more important -- to our enemies abroad. That is a real risk, but at this point it seems a risk worth running to prevent the current crisis from spiraling out of control.


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