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Rumsfeld’s Tenure and Future at the Pentagon Debated

April 14, 2006 at 12:00 AM EST
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JIM LEHRER: And finally tonight, the analysis of Shields and Brooks, syndicated columnist Mark Shields, New York Times columnist David Brooks.

Mark, how significant is the speaking out of the generals this week about Rumsfeld?

MARK SHIELDS, Syndicated Columnist: I think it’s profoundly significant, Jim, on several counts. First of all, unstated so far, I think, is the recognition on the part of the generals and much of the American military that the war in Iraq is going to end badly for the United States. And when that happens, recriminations follow and the inevitable and ugly search for a scapegoat or scapegoats.

And I think there’s a vow, a collective vow on the part of those involved, that the scapegoat for the failure of Iraq or the failure of U.S. policy in Iraq will not be the United States military. I think coupled with that…

JIM LEHRER: So they’re trying to pre-empt that?

MARK SHIELDS: Preempt that. And I think there was — a catalyst was Secretary Rice’s statement, “thousands of technical errors were made,” which is read: military.

JIM LEHRER: Tactical error, meaning something that happened on the ground…

MARK SHIELDS: Something on the ground.

JIM LEHRER: Rather than a strategic era, which is the planning, right.

MARK SHIELDS: Down at the Pentagon or at the State Department or some — or at the White House. I think that contributed to it.

I think the other factor is that many of these officers, the retired officers, are veterans of Vietnam. And a book came out of that terrible time that was called “Dereliction of Duty,” which became required reading for the officers of a certain rank by General Hugh Shelton, who was the chairman of Joint Chiefs of Staff in the ’90s. And it lamented and lambasted the failure of officers during Vietnam who recognized that the policy had failed not to speak out in opposition.

So I think all of these factors, in addition to resentment at the policies, and the rejection of military advice, and the formulation of policy, I think all of these are contributing to it right now.

JIM LEHRER: Is it a major event?

DAVID BROOKS, Columnist, New York Times: I think it’s another brick in the wall. I think a lot of the generals actually supported the war and still supported the war. And one of the reasons they want Rumsfeld to go is because they still have hopes that it can turn out well and they want to see it run by somebody else.

The second reason is important. It’s because it’s the tip of the iceberg of military opposition to Rumsfeld. David Ignatius in the Washington Post asked a military officer: How many of his colleagues wanted Rumsfeld to go? And this officer said 75 percent. And Ignatius noted that might be low, based on what he’s hearing, and based on what I’m hearing on Capitol Hill, that’s certainly low on Capitol Hill.

So Rumsfeld has diminished support just all around Washington. And then the final thing is that it’s — domestically, the president does not have credibility on Iraq until somebody pays the price, and the somebody who deserves to pay the price is Donald Rumsfeld. So just as a domestic matter, I think it’s important that Rumsfeld leave.

JIM LEHRER: But the president issued a statement — he’s at Camp David — he issued a written statement, couldn’t be more supportive of Donald Rumsfeld.

DAVID BROOKS: Right.

JIM LEHRER: So how do you read that? What’s going to happen?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, I think there are a lot of things at play here. First is the narrow thing that Bush does not want to knuckle down to a bunch of carping generals.

Second, a general view, and Churchill had a statement that the worst things get, the more we stick together. And I think that view is the view within the White House, that, “We’re sticking together.”

And Bush is a loyal person. He doesn’t want it that other people are bossing him around. And, basically, he was there when a lot of the decisions were made, so he doesn’t… so he feels it would be disloyal personally to Rumsfeld.

JIM LEHRER: To then, in other words, join the scapegoating of one man, who he also, as president, participated in it.

MARK SHIELDS: Yes, I think it’s very awkward, because he was joined at the hip with Rumsfeld, the president. And I thought perhaps the hardest shot of all was fired (INAUDIBLE) General Batiste on this show last night, who actually turned down a third star. And I don’t know if people really understand what that means, in military terms. He turned down a third star. A three-star general is accorded a respect and a deference that a two-star isn’t, quite frankly.

JIM LEHRER: And it’s a huge jump.

MARK SHIELDS: It’s a huge jump.

JIM LEHRER: In the military, it’s a huge jump.

MARK SHIELDS: Huge jump. It means he’s on his way to a four, probably to a four.

JIM LEHRER: It’s like going from lieutenant colonel to colonel. There is a huge, huge difference.

MARK SHIELDS: A huge gulf. And the point is: He paid. In other words, he was willing to pay with his retirement, with his stature, with his status, because he disagreed with that policy.

But I thought there was the statement made by General Newbold that the invasion of Iraq…

JIM LEHRER: Marine General.

MARK SHIELDS: … Marine General was done with — the invasion of Iraq was done with a casualness and a swagger that a province of those who have never had to execute these missions or bury the results. And, boy, I thought that was just directed at Paul Wolfowitz, and Richard Perle, and Dick Cheney, and the whole lineup of civilians he felt…

JIM LEHRER: Is that a fair shot?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, you know, as it turned out, the way the planning was, it’s a fair shot. Where I’d push back was civilians run the military. Civilians are supposed to run the military. There’s tension built in there, and often civilians have been more intelligent about running wars than the uniformed, so I don’t think we should defer to the uniformed in all circumstances.

In most circumstances, in fact, I’d like to see civilians running the military. And, you know, Donald Rumsfeld, in times of peace, what he was doing was to try to transform the Pentagon and shake up the bureaucracy there, was the right thing to do.

He came out of a long tradition in government and in corporations of streamlining organizations, of shaking things up. That was a good tradition, in general. In times of war, it turned out to be a bad tradition. You don’t streamline in times of war.

And so a lot of the things that were his virtues turned into vices. But the idea that we should always defer to the uniformed services is not the correct conclusion here.

JIM LEHRER: Speaking of pushing back, we got some e-mail in reaction to the interview last night with General Batiste. And some people suggested: Hey, wait a minute. What kind of message does this send to the troops that are still on the ground, American troops still on the ground in Iraq, or young American troops that are about to go to Iraq? Is that a problem?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, it’s clearly something that’s weighing on a lot of people’s minds, a lot of the retired officers’ minds, that this is hurting civilian-military relations. And they don’t think generals should be weighing in.

I personally think they should. General Meade in 1864 weighed in, in sort of a big way, and I think that’s perfectly legitimate. As for the effect on morale of the troops, I simply don’t know; I suspect that their attitudes toward the brass is what enlisted people often is toward the brass. Who cares?

MARK SHIELDS: Well, the White House is deprived of its usual punching bag, which is the liberal media.

JIM LEHRER: Yes, this doesn’t work on this one.

MARK SHIELDS: Because you can’t accuse — I mean, the military are overwhelmingly — military officer corps — it’s overwhelmingly Republican.

JIM LEHRER: I wasn’t thinking of it in political terms. It’s just that, you know, for a kid over there, you know, walking down a road with a rifle in his or her hand, what does this do?

MARK SHIELDS: Well, I think we’re talking about unit cohesion. I think that’s where the unity is, and I think that’s where the loyalty is.

JIM LEHRER: It always is.

MARK SHIELDS: It always is. And I don’t think it comes back to what’s going on here. I do think that these people are speaking out. They’re breaking an enormous tradition of conservative Republicanism in the military ranks.

And David had mentioned, in 1864, generals had played a large part in our — I mean, General McClellan ran against Abraham Lincoln in 1864.

DAVID BROOKS: Sure did.

MARK SHIELDS: We had presidents named Jackson, and Taylor, and Washington, and Eisenhower, I think, who were generals who had made a contribution.

JIM LEHRER: But this sort of thing has never happened before.

MARK SHIELDS: This is a new thing.

JIM LEHRER: Do agree with…

DAVID BROOKS: There is a fear — I mean, General Myers came out today and said: We should not be spouting off like this, because it will give the future secretaries of defense an incentive to only hire loyalists for fear of what they might say post-service.” And I think that’s a legitimate fear, though in times of war I would think the devotion of the country and the truth overwhelms that.

JIM LEHRER: The final point here on this, and we want to move onto something else, Mark, but David mentioned David Ignatius’ column this morning. And he made the point that it’s up to Rumsfeld, not the president.

The president can’t get rid of him without appearing to be admitting that there was a terrible mistake here. But Rumsfeld himself can go, if he’s really interested in the job overseas in Iraq ending well, he should go and push it himself; do you agree with that?

MARK SHIELDS: Well, I think you can make the case that Rumsfeld has to go. Rumsfeld alienated the military to a considerable degree early with his overhaul.

JIM LEHRER: Before Iraq.

MARK SHIELDS: Before Iraq with his overhaul.

JIM LEHRER: Right.

MARK SHIELDS: And the first three months, he never once spoke to a commanding officer of any of the branches of the military individually. The only person he talked to was General Myers of uniformed rank.

And I think his overhaul, his re-invention of the military, is doomed, not because the idea, but as long as he is — he’s an architect and an advocate who could never achieve it, Jim. So if he’s really interested in that being achieved…

JIM LEHRER: That was Ignatius’ point. Do you agree with that?

DAVID BROOKS: I think he should. Remember, he had these rules when he came in. We all read these rules. One of them was: Be ready to resign every day. If you look at the rules, he’s violated every single one of the rules about allowing information to flow freely.

I mean, he really has instituted a reign of terror, when we talked about the Michael Gordon book a couple of weeks ago now. What you got out of that book was the sense that people did not feel free to speak freely, and now some of them are post-service.

JIM LEHRER: A follow-up, quickly, on Iran, the discussion we just heard. How do you — what kind of marks do you give the administration for handling the Iran issue, particularly this week?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, it’s a terrible situation. I think they have not really decided whether it’s unacceptable. And I think they’re hoping it just drags on year after year.

I think they know the diplomatic process isn’t going to lead anywhere. I think they see the guy who’s threatening to wipe Israel off the map. But there are no options, so I think they really are pushing it down the road, thinking very slowly about what to do.

JIM LEHRER: What do you think?

MARK SHIELDS: I think the options, Jim, are limited and unattractive, and I think the administration has confronted that reality. And I thought the fact that Seymour Hersh’s piece in the New Yorker was obviously a leak from military folks who were concerned about the downside of military action against Iran.

JIM LEHRER: But is it your impression that there’s a serious push toward military action?

DAVID BROOKS: Unless George Bush is returning Sy Hersh’s calls, I don’t think there’s anything to that. Maybe they floated it out just to scare some people, but, you know, you talk to senior government officials and try to press them, believe me, they are not heading down that path anytime soon.

JIM LEHRER: Have you heard people talking about this scenario?

MARK SHIELDS: I have heard people talking about, but, I mean, not people who are making policy, but people in positions who ought to know something, who are concerned that there’s a disconnect from reality.

JIM LEHRER: Well, does the speaking out of the generals about Iraq and Rumsfeld kind of put, in and of itself, in a little tamper to that and say, “Hey, wait a minute; maybe military action is the way we want to go on this,” even among people who might otherwise think the opposite?

MARK SHIELDS: The resistance to the military action?

JIM LEHRER: Yes, yes. Yes, right.

MARK SHIELDS: I mean, I think there’s a current concern about opening up a second front.

JIM LEHRER: That’s what I mean.

MARK SHIELDS: I think there’s some about fundamentalism. I think there’s a sense of, what does this do for further terrorism? I mean, you know, the idea that Sy Hersh refers to of this leading to a popular uprising in Iran, I mean, really says…

JIM LEHRER: Does that sound credible to you?

DAVID BROOKS: I know that people in the administration explicitly believe that, if they bombed Iran, it would destroy the opposition. That’s one of the reasons they don’t want to do it. They think changing that regime is really the only long-term solution.

So I really do not think they are anywhere close to that. I don’t even think they’re close to saying, is it really unacceptable? They say it’s unacceptable, but do they really believe it’s unacceptable for Iran to get the bomb? I don’t think they’ve really come to that conclusion. They may think, eh, it’s deterrable. They may think, eh, let’s let the next administration worry about this.

JIM LEHRER: I notice also, even in the clips that set up Margaret’s discussion, both the president and Secretary Rice talk all the time about our allies, and the rest of the world, and they emphasize France and Germany, who were not with us on Iraq and all of that sort of stuff.

DAVID BROOKS: Well, they’re trying it, but I don’t think they have any expectation that will work, either.

JIM LEHRER: You mean, in terms of the diplomatic thing?

DAVID BROOKS: I don’t think the Europeans do, either, yes.

MARK SHIELDS: No, the Russians or the Chinese, either.

JIM LEHRER: Right, right. OK, on that upbeat note, we will leave it. Thank you, all.