By the normal standards of business or government, Donald Rumsfeld should long since have resigned or been fired as secretary of Defense.
The reason is not ideology, nor is it his role in the Abu Ghraib prison scandal, horrifying though that may be. The reason is incompetence. His record in Iraq over the last 13 months is the most dramatically incompetent performance by a public official in recent American history.
United States forces entered Baghdad in triumph in April 2003. Today they cannot prevent an assassination on the doorstep of occupation headquarters. Insecurity roils the country. Six weeks before some uncertain form of sovereignty is to be turned over to an Iraqi regime, no one knows what that regime will be.
Rumsfeld is the man responsible. He sought and won the responsibility for postwar Iraq from President Bush. He and his aides tossed aside State Department studies on the difficulties to be expected. Rumsfeld relied for advice on Ahmad Chalabi, an Iraqi exile who was wanted for fraud in Jordan and who provided what many have described as fraudulent intelligence. Chalabi and his organization got $39 million from the U.S. government until it finally, last week, stopped the gravy train.
The speed with which Iraq unraveled was stunning, beginning immediately after the military victory. Mobs looted Iraqi institutions -- and for two months, incredibly, U.S. forces did nothing effective to stop it. Every Iraqi government department except the oil ministry was looted. The great national museum and the national library were ransacked. Looters took beds from hospitals, computers from universities.
It was a disaster for the occupation that followed. Electricity and water supplies were hurt. But the psychological damage was worse. Iraqis saw the occupying forces as being grotesquely unprepared to provide elementary security. The U.S. has never recovered from that loss of confidence. Asked about the looting at the time, Rumsfeld dismissed it as “untidiness.”
Rumsfeld’s man in Iraq, L. Paul Bremer III, started out by disbanding the entire Iraqi army. The result was to leave hundreds of thousands of men on the street without income or dignity -- a recipe for resentment. Lately, under the pressure of growing nationalist resistance, Bremer has started trying to undo his folly and rehire some former soldiers. He dealt with the confrontation in Fallouja by turning security in that city over to Saddam Hussein’s former officers.
It was Rumsfeld who thought it was wise to violate the third Geneva Convention, to which this country is a signatory, and unilaterally label all the prisoners held at Guantanamo as “unlawful combatants” -- without the right to the hearings required by the convention.
The policy brought condemnation around the world; a top British justice, Lord Steyn, said Guantanamo was a “legal black hole.” Rumsfeld dismissed complaints about the treatment of prisoners as “isolated pockets of international hyperventilation.”
Brushing aside the law at Guantanamo was a prelude to the lawlessness at Abu Ghraib.
The Economist magazine, one of the most pro-American voices in the world, said the Guantanamo policy was “both wrong and dangerous for America’s reputation. It was wrong because it violated the very values and rule of law for which America was supposedly fighting.” The Economist added that it was “a symbol of a ‘we’ll decide’ arrogance.”
The political performance of the occupation authority in Iraq, again under Rumsfeld’s agent, Bremer, has been halting. Bremer resisted Iraqi calls for early elections -- an unpersuasive position for a power supposedly bringing democracy to Iraq. He imposed on Iraq a transitional constitution written by Americans -- and sure to be disowned by the Shiite majority in any truly sovereign Iraqi government.
And now, Abu Ghraib, according to Seymour Hersh in the last issue of the New Yorker, can be traced directly back to Rumsfeld.
The results of this parade of incompetence are terrible for the United States. Countries long friendly to us are seething with anti-American feelings. And it is hard to see any way out of the mess Rumsfeld has created in Iraq. We are now reduced to pleading for help from a United Nations we so recently scorned.
The honorable course for a public official responsible for such disasters is to resign. Lord Carrington, the British foreign secretary, showed how when he resigned after Argentina occupied Britain’s Falkland Islands in 1982 -- even though he was only remotely responsible. But then, Rumsfeld’s boss has shown that responsibility for disaster does not matter. “You are a strong secretary of Defense,” President Bush told him this month, “and the nation owes you a debt of gratitude.”
Anthony Lewis is a former columnist for the New York Times and the author of “Gideon’s Trumpet” (1964, Random House).