“I hear the voices, and I read the front page, and I know the speculation,” said the President of the United States, sounding as peevish as a toddler banging his silver spoon on the high chair. “But I’m the decider, and I decide what’s best. And what’s best is for Don Rumsfeld to remain as the Secretary of Defense.”
By reminding everybody that he is “the decider,” George W. Bush no doubt hoped to stifle embarrassing protests from a growing corps of retired officers such as General Anthony Zinni, who believe that the war in Iraq has been ruinously botched and that the Secretary of Defense should retire. But his defensive outburst only drew attention to the most deserving target of criticism: himself.
While the frustrated generals named Mr. Rumsfeld in their complaint, they clearly aimed at Mr. Bush. They know that the Commander in Chief was implicated, from the beginning, in every bad decision perpetrated by the Pentagon civilian leadership. They understand why the President cannot take their advice to dump Rummy, as Brookings Institution military analyst Michael O’Hanlon pointed out: “For Bush to fire Rumsfeld is for Bush to declare himself a failure as president.”
But the generals, some of whom have supported the President in the past, cannot demand the resignation of the President, of course, nor can they direct their critique at him personally. To do so would set off even more false alarms about their supposed violation of America’s traditional civilian control of the military.
That is only one of several bogus ripostes to retired flag officers who are now private citizens, with all the rights and privileges that the rest of us enjoy—and considerably more knowledge than most of us possess. Predictably, they are enduring the usual barrage of chaff and nonsense fired off from the right at every prominent White House critic. They have been attacked for speaking up at all, and they have been attacked for not speaking up sooner. They’re talking about policy, and they’re accused of obsessing about personality.
Gen. Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, offered the most feeble defense of his boss: “He does his homework. He works weekends, he works nights. People can question my judgment or his judgment, but they should never question the dedication, the patriotism and the work ethic of Secretary Rumsfeld.” Nobody has questioned his work ethic, let alone his patriotism (a tactic most often abused by Republicans and not against them). What the flag officers have questioned are his spectacular incompetence and his catastrophic arrogance.
As if to confirm their observations, Mr. Rumsfeld airily dismissed his critics by assuring Rush Limbaugh that “this too will pass.” In a way, that remark was almost as dishonest as his forgotten claim that he knew where Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction would be found. He is well aware that anger has festered in the armed forces for years, not weeks or days, and won’t evaporate with a wave of his hand.
Expressions of that discontent were first heard following the public assault on Gen. Eric Shinseki by Paul Wolfowitz, then the Deputy Defense Secretary, because the general had dared to urge more “boots on the ground” in Iraq. They were heard when eight retired J.A.G. admirals and generals sent the President a letter demanding a sweeping investigation of the Abu Ghraib prison scandal, which meant holding the guilty Mr. Rumsfeld accountable. They were heard when a dozen retired flag officers decided to endorse John Kerry at the Democratic convention in 2004.
And they are heard again this year, louder than ever, with scores of Iraq veterans stepping forward to run for Congress as Democrats.
Among those candidates is Joe Sestak, a retired vice admiral seeking to unseat Curt Weldon, the entrenched (and truly egregious) Republican incumbent in Pennsylvania’s Seventh District. During his 31-year career in the Navy, Mr. Sestak’s assignments ranged from commanding a battle group in the Persian Gulf to serving on the National Security Council staff and overseeing the Quadrennial Defense Review. (He also happens to have earned a master’s in public administration and a doctorate in government from Harvard.)
“One of the primary reasons I entered this election is that I believe invading Iraq was not the right decision,” explains Mr. Sestak, who sees the war as a damaging distraction from Al Qaeda, Afghanistan and other serious threats. He now warns that we must find our way out of “a prolonged occupation with rising death, injury and cost …. It will be an occupation that will continue to have goals that are ever changing as they remain elusive. The result will be continued loss of U.S. military and diplomatic credibility.”
Yes, the President hears the voices and doesn’t like what he hears. So his henchmen scourge those who dare to speak out, regardless of their previous service. But he will never escape the judgment of the men and women in uniform who had to carry out his orders.