Victory per Rumsfeld's Say-So

by Richard Cohen | Washington Post | 29 May 2003

NEW YORK -- Donald Rumsfeld throws off charm like a just-bathed dog shaking off water. He jokes, he banters, he teases. He has the facts, the numbers and the Pentagon jargon to sound very smart indeed. But the one thing he does not have is humility. Hunky-dory Don will never admit that mistakes have been made in Iraq.

More to the point, he will not admit that he is the one who made those mistakes. As boss of the Pentagon, Rumsfeld has presided over a truly inexplicable failure to seize and secure sites in Iraq where weapons of mass destruction were supposedly produced or stored. Maybe for that reason -- maybe -- no such weapons have yet been found.

It was because of these purported weapons of mass destruction that the United States, at the head of a grand coalition of the willing, went to war in the first place. This was the case Colin Powell presented to the United Nations and the one President Bush made to the American people. Sure, Saddam Hussein was evil -- but it was his weapons that made him dangerous.

So where are these weapons? Rumsfeld was asked that question after he spoke here to the Council on Foreign Relations. He said they might have been destroyed in advance of the war. He was then asked how it was possible that the hapless Iraqi army, so inept in everything it did, was able to destroy all its chemical or biological weapons so that not a trace could be found -- and the United States never noticed. Rumsfeld ducked the question. Iraq is a big country, he said. As large as California, he said. Blah, blah.

The war in Iraq is usually portrayed as a splendid victory -- and I'm sure it's just a matter of time until some congressman proposes a monument to it on the Mall. But the war was fought -- remember -- to make the world safe from weapons of mass destruction. Yet the Pentagon, which cannot praise its own planning enough, did not allot sufficient troops to secure suspected WMD sites after the war was won.

If these weapons existed, where are they? Possibly looted. Possibly in the hands of terrorists. It just could be that instead of containing the problem we have spread it. This is not great planning.

In his speech to the council, Rumsfeld likened conditions in postwar Iraq to those in America following the War of Independence. This was probably the silliest comparison ever made by a college graduate, but it suited Rumsfeld's contention that what's happening in Iraq is unavoidable. Just to make his point, he quoted Jefferson: "We are not to expect to be translated from despotism to liberty in a featherbed."

Featherbed, shmeatherbed. It was Rumsfeld's job to make sure that WMD sites were secure. It was his job to plan for the occupation of Iraq. It was his job to have enough troops in the country to maintain law and order, to keep museum artifacts in their display cases and hospital supplies in their cabinets -- to contain looting and other types of crime. It was his job also to have more of these troops be military policemen trained for civil unrest, and not Marines trained to hit the beach. This was not an 18th-century revolution, this was a 21st-century invasion -- an optional war whose outcome was never in doubt.

Now elements of the Bush administration, particularly within the Pentagon, are rattling their sabers in the direction of Iran, making some of the same arguments they made about Iraq: links to terrorism, weapons of mass destruction, etc. Given what has happened in Iraq, should they be believed?

The answer is yes. But asking whether the Bush administration should be believed about Iran is different from asking whether it will be believed. The question, after all, is not whether the U.S. intelligence agencies are competent but to what uses the intelligence has been put. If, as it seems, information goes into the Pentagon at one end and comes out the other with a political spin, then we are right to wonder about ulterior motives.

In his speech to the Council on Foreign Relations, Rumsfeld referred to something called a "lessons learned activity." This is Pentagon jargon for "doing a review" -- seeing where things went wrong. Both the CIA and the Pentagon are now doing this regarding the war in Iraq, but Congress ought to do the same. If there is a lesson learned after the war, it is that the Pentagon can hardy be expected to review what went wrong when the man at the top insists everything went right.

2003 The Washington Post Company

Posted by: Ed Howard on May 30, 03 | 1:36 pm