Exit strategy, post-Rumsfeld


BETTER LATE THAN never. More than two years after Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld offered to resign in the aftermath of the Abu Ghraib prison scandal, President Bush finally agreed to let Rumsfeld go, to make room for a “fresh perspective.” It’s an easy gesture at this point — the political equivalent of bringing down the piñata once it’s been battered beyond recognition.

The “fresh perspective” will be provided by a close confidant of Bush’s father, former CIA Director Robert M. Gates. Gates is everything Rumsfeld isn’t: an understated, consensus-seeking Washington operator.

When Bush took office, his diplomatic and national security team of Vice President Dick Cheney, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice and Rumsfeld exuded a sense of seasoned competence. Yet they presided over a faith-based policymaking that has proved disastrous to the national interest.


Rumsfeld was right to embrace the need for a technology-driven military revolution. But he confused the need to modernize weapons systems and create a more nimble military with a license to wage war on the cheap, famously dismissing advice that it would take several hundred thousand troops to secure Iraq. The occupation was ill-planned because of a reliance on the assumptions of overzealous neocon thinkers.

Now, after the gains made by Democrats in an election rightly viewed as a referendum on Iraq, Bush needs to do more than accept Rumsfeld’s resignation. Characteristically, Bush sent a mixed message at Wednesday’s news conference. He emphasized the “fresh perspective” that Gates would bring to the job, but he continued to define “victory” in utopian terms: a democratic Iraq “that can defend, govern and sustain itself, and [be] an ally in the war on terror.”

Bush also suggested that he might find “common ground” with victorious congressional Democrats who had demanded a new approach to Iraq. The circle may be squared by the elder Bush’s chief consigliere, James A. Baker III, who is presiding over the so-called Iraq Study Group — which not coincidentally counts one Robert Gates among its members.

Even before the election, administration officials and some Democrats were predicting that the Baker panel would provide a rationale for the president to scale down his ambitions for Iraq and expedite the implementation of his promise that “as the Iraqis stand up, we will stand down” — even if the posture of Iraqi forces (or of Iraqi democracy) leaves something to be desired.

It still would be preferable if Washington could find a way to induce Iraqi factions to pull back from civil strife and establish a stable, democratic and multi-religious state. But that may be impossible. If Bush feels he must camouflage lowered expectations in the language of “victory,” his newfound collaborators in the Democratic Party — and the voters who selected them — are unlikely to object.