It was one of the great symbolic moments of the Bush administration, and of course everybody missed it.
Tuesday, the Senate Armed Services Committee held a hearing on a $23.5 billion Pentagon deal to lease tankers from Boeing, a deal that has already sent two people to jail and was described by a Pentagon auditor as the dirtiest he’s seen in 33 years on the job. Somehow, the report from the Pentagon auditor general made no mention whatsoever of the people who were running the Defense Department at the time, Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and Deputy Secretary Paul Wolfowitz.
“You found nothing in your interviews with the secretary of defense and the deputy secretary of defense that was relevant to this report?” asked committee chairman John Warner, R-Va., in what the Chicago Tribune called “a surprised tone.”
But the surprise is that anyone would be surprised.
For the past five years, Donald Rumsfeld has achieved a steady record of disaster without responsibility.
Rumsfeld’s ability to parachute out the back of the tanker scandal is particularly striking because former Air Force Secretary James Roche told investigators the secretary ordered him to back the idea: “He did not want me to budge on the tanker lease proposal.”
But the tankers fly in formation with a long list of calamities out of Rumsfeld’s office, from the repeated miscalculation of the realities of Iraq, to decisions on Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib, to a sharp fall in enlistments that the Defense Department is dealing with by moving around the numbers.
It’s a resume to run from — except that somehow, if you’re Don Rumsfeld, it never catches up with you.
In October 2002, Rumsfeld set up the Office of Special Plans in the Pentagon, an alternative effort to produce the information he wanted to be told. The OSP fueled Rumsfeld’s certainty about weapons of mass destruction, and his prewar statements that the United States not only knew the WMD were in Iraq, but knew exactly where they were.
Rumsfeld brought the same certainty to his views of what the war would take. One overlooked aspect of the Downing Street Memo — which recorded a statement in a high-level British meeting in summer 2002 that the Bush administration already had decided to attack Iraq — is that it refers to a planned invasion force of 250,000. Famously, Army Chief of Staff Eric Shinseki told a congressional committee that occupying Iraq after the war would take hundreds of thousands of troops.
The actual invasion and occupation force was closer to 150,000, enough to topple Saddam Hussein, but not enough to control the country afterward. As looting and chaos spread through Baghdad, Rumsfeld shrugged off the disorder, saying, “Democracy is messy.”
For two years, as attacks and anarchy spread across Iraq, Rumsfeld insisted he had provided all the troops his generals requested. By April 2005, he had come up with a new explanation: “The more troops you have, the more targets you have and the more people who might get killed.”
The Powell Doctrine was never to go in without overwhelming force. The Rumsfeld Corollary is apparently to go in hoping your enemies can’t find you.
At the same time, Rumsfeld concluded that the Geneva Conventions for dealing with prisoners no longer applied to the new “set of facts.” As Fareed Zakaria wrote in Newsweek, Rumsfeld authorized tactics to break down prisoners by stress, stripping and using dogs.
When the photos from Abu Ghraib spilled across the world, he complained to the Senate Armed Services Committee about “the information age where people are running around with digital cameras and taking these unbelievable photographs and then passing them off, against the law, to the media, to our surprise, when they had not even arrived in the Pentagon.”
The problem, it seemed, wasn’t the policy; it was this darned age of digital cameras.
MIT professor Barry R. Posen reminds us in The New York Times that just this past March, Rumsfeld declared his “metrics” and “indicators” were improving. An upsurge in attacks and deaths since then hasn’t changed his mind. The wave of bombings, Rumsfeld says, is “a sign of desperation” on the part of the terrorists.
But congressmen returning from Iraq don’t see it that way. Rep. Curt Weldon, R-Pa., vice chairman of the Armed Services Committee, told The Washington Post last weekend that Rumsfeld was being deceptive about Iraqi troop strength, warning, “We don’t want to raise the expectations of the American people prematurely.”
Actually, high expectations don’t seem to be the problem. Army and Marine enlistments again fell short in the most recent month; the numbers released this week were delayed to make the shortfall less dramatic by retroactively lowering the recruiting goal. According to the Army Times this week, there’s another plan to make the numbers look better: release all services’ numbers together, partially covering the Army and Marine shortfalls with the better numbers from the Navy and Air Force.
Just how well this will work in the field is hard to say.
Somehow, the extent of Rumsfeld’s calamities at the Pentagon — in strategy, in planning, in prisoner treatment, in maintaining troop levels — never seem to catch up with him. President Bush, last year, said that he was “a really good defense secretary.”
And yet somehow, he’s filled up a tankerful of troubles.
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