Should Rumsfeld Be the Scapegoat?

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The news that Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld is to be the Bush Administration's ritual sacrifice to atone for Iraq comes as no surprise. It had been obvious for months now that the debacle would be blamed on Rumsfeld. And the blame-Rumsfeld narrative has a singular attraction for all those who supported the Iraq war and now wish to evade their own culpability in the catastrophe it inevitably became.

Everyone from neocon hacks to flip-flopping Democrats, White House loyalists and "liberal hawk" media pundits have signed on to the notion that it was the right war, botched in the implementation by a tin-eared Defense Secretary promoting a bizarre managerial theory of capital-intensive warfare. Translation: If Rumsfeld had simply sent more troops, the outcome would have been different.

That, frankly, is a self-serving evasion for anyone who advocated invading Iraq. Blaming Rumsfeld for the debacle it became reminds me of Trotskyists trying to rescue Bolshevism by blaming its grotesque consequences on Stalin's "implementation," rather than on its inner logic.

Having more troops in Iraq would have made a tactical difference, and might have altered the story arc and timeline. But it's unlikely to have produced a different outcome. The resistance to the very principle of American occupation by Sunni insurgents and Sadrists; the Sunnis' militant hostility to the loss of their power in a democratic system; and the democratically elected Shi'ites'contempt for the Sunni erstwhile elite — all these factors, which are currently driving the insurgency and the civil war, would still be in play no matter how many U.S. troops were in the field.

Moreover, the fantasy of a good war botched by bad management evades the reality that the troop levels in Iraq were a function of the politics of the war, rather than of some futuristic warfare theory. The chiefs of staff believed it would require closer to half a million troops to subdue Iraq. Yet they probably also knew that if Congress were presented with a realistic picture of the cost and commitment, it might balk at authorizing the war. That was the reason Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz jumped so aggressively down the throat of General Eric Shinseki when the latter suggested to Congress that the occupation mission would require a "few hundred thousand" troops. It wasn't that Wolfowitz was seized by some Rumsfeldian "new-generation warfare" fever; he was simply determined to eliminate any political obstacle to the invasion.

Wolfowitz, like Rumsfeld, was also partial to the fantasy that the Iraqis would greet U.S. troops with sweets and flowers and that no occupation mission would really be necessary. Then again, no Administration official could match Dick Cheney for spinning fables on Iraq — from "reconstituted" nukes to U.S. forces being "greeted as liberators," and an insurgency on its last legs — and he's still in his job.

The argument that more troops should have been sent doesn't reckon with the difficulties the U.S. military has faced in sustaining even the current deployment. The strain on U.S. military resources would have precluded sustaining the deployment of "several hundred thousand" troops in Iraq for more than a few months. And it's hopelessly na´ve to imagine that this would somehow have created a window for the emergence of a new democratic Wal-Mart nation that would have prevented the emergence of the darker impulses on view today.

The scale of America's troop commitment in Iraq has always been a political question, answered in the context of the concern by the war's architects to avoid provoking a Vietnam-style domestic political backlash sabotaging the mission.

More troops in Iraq would have made a quantitative difference, but not a qualitative one. And there is some merit to the argument that increasing the size of the U.S. footprint could just as easily have widened the hostility to their presence. The Iraqi insurgency has been impressively adaptive, and would very likely have found a way of expressing its nasty politics even with twice as many American boots on the ground. And the sectarian rivalries that are fueling the civil war are as much present in the democratic political institutions as they are on the violent streets. It's way too simple to imagine that Iraq turned disastrous because of a few bad tactical choices that can be attributed to Rumsfeld. The morbid symptoms that have plagued post-Saddam Iraq were predicted, long before the invasion, by such veterans of the first President Bush's administration as Brent Scowcroft and James Baker, and also by Marine General Anthony Zinni. They made clear that invading Iraq would be a disastrous strategic choice, and they have been vindicated. And invading Iraq was hardly Don Rumsfeld's decision.

None of this, of course, absolves Rumsfeld, whose Strangeloveian dissembling on the war has always been among the more bizarre media spectacles offered up by the Administration. America is well rid of him. But it has not yet confronted the roots of its problem in Iraq so long as it avoids the culpability of Cheney, Condi Rice, and President Bush himself — not to mention Hillary Clinton, John Kerry and all those revisionist media pundits who want to blame Rumsfeld for a strategic blunder in which they all had a hand.