Rumsfeld's Last Stand

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“One never knows, do one?” ~ Fats Waller

One never does know. Events take strange, unexpected twists and turns on their way to becoming "history." Charles Burton Marshall wisely observed, over twenty years ago, that “there is no such thing as the foreseeable future.”

During the past two years and more, contributors to these pages have endeavored to lay the groundwork for a rational critique of the Bush administration’s invasion of Iraq. We appealed to history, theoretical analysis, and the Constitution. We exposed subterfuge. We countered contradiction. We repelled personal vilification. We propelled esoteric terms into the mainstream conversation — and “Straussian” and “neocon” were suddenly recognized as ideological schools, even by what is called, rather nostalgically, the “mainstream media.”

And yet, under Karl Rove’s able and watchful eye, the Bush team exuded flinty determination, resolve, and downright stubbornness — exactly the qualities, according to Rove, required to salvage a Bush victory, no matter what happens in the next six months — in the economy, in Iraq, or in the terror front. Because, well, “One never knows, do one?”

The team could not admit mistakes. No once could lack relentless resolve. And no one could give anyone else the time of day. If a question was unwelcome, it would simply not be answered. The team served up a clashing, contradictory, chaotic kaleidoscope of assertions as both explanation and justification for every surfacing revelation of error, deception, or just plain incompetence that followed.

The war juggernaut gaily rolled along, exploiting America’s patriotic symbols and traditions in every possible way. LRC dutifully pointed to the gathering piles of royal undergarments at the side of the road as the emperor marched by, unflinching and unclad, but nothing we said seemed even to make a dent in the din. When we got close, all we heard was, “9-11 changed everything.”

But Divine Providence has hidden ways that are beyond human understanding. Small things suddenly assume the proportion of great things. And now, taking everyone by surprise, a relatively insignificant element in the myriad of blunders that the invasion has visited on that unhappy desert land has brought the entire imperial enterprise in Iraq to teeter on the brink. Corruption, slaughter, and deception all failed to ignite the American domestic imagination. But the revelation that a few Iraqi prisoners might have been tortured by a few inexperienced noncoms from the Appalachian backwoods (where I live), has suddenly brought the careening imperial juggernaut of the world’s sole superpower to a screeching halt.

Seven Days In May

In coming days, the whole war will be on the line. The jumble of political agendas, backroom deals, crosstown rivalries, and frayed bonds of trust that have so far propped up the war effort will be up for grabs.

At the foundation of the crisis lies the administration’s steadfast refusal to address the Iraq issue rationally. Instead, it chose classical themes of intimidation abroad and fear at home. I’ve always wondered, was it because they didn’t trust the rational powers of the electorate, or because they didn’t feel confident that they could deliver a rational explanation? Or perhaps some of both? We may never know. But now the administration that has lived by the sword of symbol and passion will not be able to appeal to reason in its self-defense. And the imagery and symbolism of the torture chamber are immense, and powerful, and damning.

After 9-11, the Bush team abandoned rational debate altogether. But intimidation was fierce. Domestically, if you criticized the war, you were on the side of the terrorists. Internationally, we were the world’s greatest superpower, unstoppable and unbeatable. (This approach, however, sometimes failed here and there. Remember how they browbeat Turkey, who wouldn’t take even a thirty-five billion-dollar payoff to allow U.S. government troops to invade Iraq from the north? Other countries were not so stalwart: knowledgeable estimates of payoffs and promises to supporters and coalition partners (all in U.S. taxpayer dollars) begin at fifty billion and go upwards from there.)

The result was an awkward and unprecedented situation where two conversations in two different and dissonant languages were taking place: one among supporters — primarily within the United States — of the U.S. government invasion; and the other, primarily foreign, among most of the rest of the world, opposing the war. Rumsfeld wrote off those realms as “Old Europe,” while Bush celebrated the supporters as the “coalition of the willing.”

The United States had never been so involuntarily isolated in its history. There were few bridges built between these two views — just bad feelings, as demonstrated most recently with the change of governments in Madrid, when Spain was suddenly transformed from a member of “New Europe” to one of “Old Europe” — ironically, by electing a socialist government.

The torture allegations have done what nothing else had: they broke down the ironclad Manichaean dualism that the administration had adopted since 9-11. Examples abound: “They hate us because we are so good (or so u2018free’)”; “End the Evil” and the “Axis of Evil”; “Deliver us from Evil.” And evil was always “over there,” in the hateful heart of some distant Islamist. But that convenient propaganda construct has now collapsed. Evil is “over here” too. And we sent it “over there.” A worldwide consensus condemning the Abu Ghraib torture has emerged, and the control freaks that kept the coffins out of sight simply cannot shut this symbol down. War supporters now desperately plead, “hey, everybody is human.” But this doesn’t always sit well, coming from the Armageddon gang that took its orders directly from God.

On the practical level, this collapse of moral authority means that all bets are off — and that includes the very human world of the U.S. Senate. For years Rumsfeld and his subordinates have stiffed major committees. They have fudged budgets. They have unnecessarily alienated staunch Republicans who want to support the President. They even kept Dick Lugar, Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, in the dark. “We all should have been advised,” he said. “When the administration needs support, it needs members of Congress to have full information so they can be constructive partners.” In the view of many Republicans, Rumsfled and his team have been imperious and condescending. It is all the worse because it was all so unnecessary.

But there it is. And now the chickens will come home to roost. What Mr. Rumsfeld needs most in this crisis is not swagger or gravitas, but the goodwill that should have been building for years between his department and Capitol Hill, especially with members of his own party. And that very goodwill is precisely what he now lacks the most, because he has valued it the least during his tenure.

I expect this deficiency to become more evident and more exacerbated in coming days. Mr. Rumsfeld will be subjected to a grueling ordeal on Capitol Hill, and things will probably get worse before they get better. One thing is clear: the severity that Rumsfeld confronts in coming days will not be predicated merely on the torture allegations. Rather, those revelation will be the lens through which all the rest of the misgivings and mistakes will now pass in review. The floodgates are open — and the avalanche cannot be far behind. Friends will be few: as one senate conservative used to say, “If you didn’t include me in the takeoff, why should I get aboard just before the crash?”

In the meantime, even under the pressure of the new revelations, Mr. Rumsfeld has not lost his arrogant air. On Wednesday’s Good Morning America, he was given the opportunity to apologize to the Iraqi people. Not only did he refuse to do so, he also deftly shifted blame for the alleged war crimes from his own shoulders to those of the American people. “Oh my goodness,” he replied, “any American who sees the photographs that we have seen has to feel apologetic to the Iraqi people who were abused and recognize that that is something that is unacceptable and un-American.”

As far as Rumsfeld is concerned, that’s an order. But don’t expect the Senate — or the country — to snap to and salute, and get him off the hot seat. This could well be Rumsfeld’s last stand, the old soldier’s turn to just fade away.

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