ON OCT. 3, 1993, an American helicopter was shot down in Somalia. Efforts to rescue the downed pilots went terribly wrong, and 18 Americans were killed. It was a humiliating incident for the world’s most powerful nation. It also devastated 18 American families. When President Clinton was told that his commanders on the ground had requested more troops but had been ignored by Secretary of Defense Les Aspin, Clinton acted decisively and fired him.
Throughout U.S. history, presidents have sacked military leaders who failed them. Lincoln went through six generals before settling on Grant. Patton was passed over for promotion by Roosevelt. Truman fired MacArthur.
President Bush has chosen a different course. As criticism mounts over the planning and execution of the Iraq war, eight retired generals have come forward in an unprecedented manner to call for the resignation of Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld. The president has held firm, stating, “I’m the decider, and I decide what’s best.”
Now, I am no fan of Rumsfeld -- in my view he has failed miserably -- but the ultimate responsibility for conducting the Iraq war lies above a Cabinet secretary’s pay grade. We can be angry at Rumsfeld; frustrated with his flawed judgment. But our frustration is misplaced if it stops there. Bush is right; he, not Rumsfeld, is the decider. And he has decided wrongly, time after time.
This president had the responsibility to direct the war but deferred to Rumsfeld. Congress had a constitutional responsibility to oversee the president’s actions. Instead, it has spent the last three years on the sidelines, approving every funding request -- nearly half a trillion dollars -- no questions asked. The glaring mistakes made at every stage of the war were ignored in favor of feel-good speeches about staying the course. The retired generals are taking the unusual step of speaking up because for the last three years the Republican Congress has been silent.
The United States has been in Iraq for more than three years. Nearly 2,500 Americans have lost their lives, with nearly 18,000 wounded. The chaos and violence is not subsiding, and what was supposed to be a quick victory has turned into the greatest foreign policy challenge in a generation. There is no doubt that things could and should have been done differently.
When it was clear that Iraq was spiraling out of control, the president should have changed commanders. In December 2004, Army Spc. Thomas Wilson asked Rumsfeld, “Why do we soldiers have to dig through local landfills for pieces of scrap metal and compromised ballistic glass to up-armor our vehicles?” It was a good question, one that no Republican in Congress had asked. The Defense secretary answered: “You go to war with the Army you have. They’re not the Army you might want or wish to have at a later time.” He should have been fired on the spot for such arrogance and ignorance. Yet the president stood by him, and Congress stood by the president.
To date, Congress has held no hearings on the conduct of the war, and Wilson’s question remains unanswered. Three years of worsening news have eroded the public’s faith in the war. Filling the void created by a lack of leadership and accountability, retired generals began to speak their minds. They had to speak up because no one was listening to the soldiers, because Congress has abdicated its oversight responsibilities and because the president has never once questioned the strategy or the performance of his team.
The secretary of Defense has a lot to answer for, but the American people did not elect Donald Rumsfeld. They elected the president and the Congress. The president must be held accountable for deciding to stick with failed leadership -- at a tremendous cost to our nation. And this Congress must be held accountable for letting him get away with it. After three years, nearly 2,500 lives and half a trillion dollars, it’s clear we went to war with the leadership we had, not the one we needed.