The Magazine

Bush v. Rumsfeld

From the August 15 / August 22, 2005 issue: The president knows we have to win the war in Iraq . . . Rumsfeld doesn't.

Aug 15, 2005, Vol. 10, No. 45 • By WILLIAM KRISTOL
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LAST WEEK IN THESE PAGES we called attention to the John-Kerry-like attempt of some Bush advisers, led by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, to abandon the term "war on terror." These advisers had been, as the New York Times reported, going out of their way to avoid "formulations using the word 'war.'" The great effort that we had all simplemindedly been calling a war was now dubbed by Rumsfeld the "global struggle against violent extremism." And the solution to this struggle was, according to Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, speaking here as Rumsfeld's cat's-paw, "more diplomatic, more economic, more political than it is military."

Now, it is of course true enough that the "war on terror" isn't simply a military struggle. What war is? There is a critical political dimension to the war on terror--which the president, above all, has understood.That's why he has placed such emphasis on promoting liberal democracy. But there is also, to say the least, a critical military dimension to this struggle. And President Bush sensed that this Rumsfeldian change in nomenclature was an attempt to duck responsibility for that critical military dimension.

The president would have none of it. This past Monday, announcing John Bolton's recess appointment as U.N. ambassador, the president went out of his way to say that "this post is too important to leave vacant any longer, especially during a war." That same day, at a high-level White House meeting, President Bush reportedly commented, with some asperity, that no one had checked with him as to whether he wanted to move beyond the phrase "war on terror." As far as he was concerned, he reminded his staff, we are fighting a war. On Wednesday, speaking in Texas, the president used the word "war" 15 times, and the phrase "war on terror" five. "Make no mistake about it," the president exclaimed, "we are at war. We're at war with an enemy that attacked us on September the 11th, 2001. We're at war against an enemy that, since that day, has continued to kill." And on Thursday, in case his advisers hadn't been paying attention, the president said it one more time: "We're at war."

So we are. And Iraq is, as the president said Wednesday, "the latest battlefield in the war on terror." It is also the central battlefield in that war. And so, the president added, "I hear all the time, 'Well, when are you bringing the troops home?' And my answer to you: 'As soon as possible, but not before the mission is complete.'" As the president said Thursday, "We will stay the course. We will complete the job in Iraq."

Or will we? The president seems determined to complete the job. Is his defense secretary? In addition to trying to abandon the term "war on terror," Rumsfeld and some of his subordinates have spent an awful lot of time in recent weeks talking about withdrawing troops from Iraq--and before the job is complete.

Until a few months ago, Bush administration officials refused to speculate on a timetable for withdrawal from Iraq. They criticized those who did talk about withdrawing, arguing that such talk would encourage the terrorists, discourage our friends, and make it harder to win over waverers who wanted to be assured that we would be there to help. The administration's line was simply that we were going to stay the course in Iraq, do what it takes, and win.

The president still tends to say this. But not Defense Department civilian officials, who have recently been willing to indicate a desire to get out, and sooner rather than later. After all, Rumsfeld has said, insurgencies allegedly take a decade or so to defeat. What's more, our presence gives those darned Iraqi allies of ours excuses not to step up to the plate. So let's get a government elected under the new Iraqi constitution, and accelerate our plans to get the troops home. As Rumsfeld said Thursday, "once Iraq is safely in the hands of the Iraqi people and a government that they elect under a new constitution that they are now fashioning, and which should be completed by August 15, our troops will be able to, as the capability of the Iraqi security forces evolve, pass over responsibility to them and then come home." The key "metric" is finding enough Iraqis to whom we can turn over the responsibility for fighting--not defeating the terrorists.

As Newsweek reported last week: "Now the conditions for U.S. withdrawal no longer include a defeated insurgency, Pentagon sources say. The new administration mantra is that the insurgency can be beaten only politically, by the success of Iraq's new government. Indeed, Washington is now less concerned about the insurgents than the unwillingness of Iraq's politicians to make compromises for the sake of national unity. Pentagon planners want to send a spine-stiffening message: the Americans won't be there forever."