There are a lot of great comments being left here on my Bush/Rumsfeld post. I want to point out two things about the “What Rummy Knew When?” situation.
First, the Dems are urging Rumsfeld’s resignation primarily as a punishment for Rumsfeld’s failure to be omniscient. To put it another way – and to borrow a vintage Rumsfeld phrase – there are knowns and there are unknowns… but there are also “should have knowns.” The Dems want Rumsfeld fired because Rumsfeld knew about the investigations and should have known about the severity of the atrocities, all of which were unknown to Congress and the public. They want Rumsfeld to pay the price for the fact that such horrors were committed, as if his termination could somehow expiate the evil. That is not why I believe Rumsfeld needs to go.
Rumsfeld’s failure is that he did not fully and candidly brief the President concerning the Pentagon’s investigation in a timely fashion, a decision on his part which is both alarming in any Cabinet member but which is all the more alarming because of the massive harm it will work on President Bush’s re-election campaign.
There is no excuse for Rumsfeld’s failure to inform President Bush in this situation. As Scott McClellan noted in yesterday’s press corps briefing, Generals Abizaid and Myers, as well as Rumsfeld, knew more about the prison abuse the President. As the Cabinet member who oversees Abizaid and Meyers, Rumsfeld’s failure to adequately brief the Commander-in-Chief of the U.S. Forces shows an obliviousness to the fact that he serves “at the pleasure of the President.” Were it not for the political implications of the situation, the President should fire him. But he can’t, and that leads to my second point.
As I’ve written previously in other contexts, Rumsfeld has been a long-standing potential political liability for the President in the same vein as Cheney. We’ve watched as the Left pointed toward Rumsfeld as “proof” of the Bush Administration’s hawkishness, and we’ve watched as moderates and centrists have been increasingly alienated by Rumsfeld’s apparent belief that the American public should not know certain facts about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. (Remember the photos of the coffins we weren’t supposed to see? Or the Pentagon’s urging of the media to stop calling it a “War in Iraq” in favor of calling it the “Fight for Iraq”?) All that has been manageable until now, when Rumsfeld appears to believe that even the President does not need to know certain facts about the war. And that stance may very well cost Bush the Presidency.
The single greatest weakness of the Bush Administration – IMVO – has been the President’s heavy reliance on advisers who may have their own agendas and who, we’ve repeatedly learned, have not been fully candid with the President. Obviously, a President is supposed to rely on his advisors instead of micromanaging in a Carter-esque fashion, but the danger for Bush – which goes back as far as the 2000 campaign – is the appearance of over-reliance on his advisors.
During the last election, the best weapon the Democrats had against Bush was the implication that he was not intelligent enough, not policy-oriented enough, not detailed enough to lead the nation on his own and, therefore, he would rely on those around him to run the Oval Office for him. Bush, we were warned, would be little more than a figure-head,a marionette whose strings would be pulled by oil- and defense-industry interests. Then 9/11 came and Bush asserted himself as an individual. He was a leader. He was engaged and running the Presidency. He made huge strides in rallying the entire country behind him. Those gains began eroding last March when we declared war in Iraq, and the Administration has since been amazingly savvy in its efforts to recoup the loss, positioning the President once again as an independent leader.
For example, in the past nine months Rumsfeld had ceased holding daily press conferences to deliver his pithy soundbites and stepped out of the limelight, letting the President take the lead. At the same time, the President’s approval rating started climbing up again. When we heard about the war, we heard about it primarily from Centcom briefings. When we heard about policy, we heard about it from the President. When the two issues overlapped, it was again the President who spoke to the nation. The message? That the military is fighting the war and the President is leading them – and us.
Then the 9/11 Commission interviewed the President in the Oval Office, and the President insisted – for reasons which have yet to be adequately explained – on Cheney being present. Once again, the shadow of a puppet Presidency surfaced. As it happened, the murders of American contractors in Iraq, the battle in Fallujah, and even the revelations about Kerry’s dissembling over his post-Vietnam actions all served to distract the voting population’s attention. Consequently, the opportunity for the Dem’s to hone and wield their best weapon against Bush was lost.
Until this week.
Now, Rumsfeld is indirectly back in the news. Now Rumsfeld himself is an issue. His decision to withhold information from the President (information which, as it turns out, had international political implications) has created yet another opportunity for the Dems to attack the President on his weakest front: his choice of and reliance on advisors who may have their own agendas. Now, to avoid confirming the “puppet Presidency”, the President has to defend his original selection of Rummy as SecDef and also defend his continued support for Rumsfeld. And it’s costing the President greatly to do so: just look at this week’s plunge in the polls which show the President at his lowest approval rating ever.
Talk about a political Catch-22. If the President retains Rumsfeld, he appears to accept and condone a Cabinet which inadequately or erroneously informs him on issues with major global significance, a là “Where are the WMDs?” But to fire Rumsfeld at this point is to acknowledge that the SecDef kept the President in the dark on the prison abuse and torture and – as the Dems are already arguing – if Rumsfeld deceived the President on that situation, what else has he failed to disclose? Either way, any action right now on the President’s part with respect to Rumsfeld will work against Bush in the next election.
The solution? It’s time for Rumsfeld to resign.