A Long Overdue Departure for Rumsfeld

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Give President Bush credit for being honest about his dishonesty. Last week he told reporters for the top wire news services — the AP, Reuters, Bloomberg — that Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney were doing fabulous work and would remain in their jobs as Defense Secretary and Vice President right up to the end of Bush's second term. Today at his post-election press conference the President more or less admitted he was lying, at least about Rumsfeld.

It's not a surprise that Rumsfeld finally resigned — to be replaced by former CIA chief Robert Gates. What is surprising is how long it took. Well before the Army Times and Marine Times called for his resignation — even before John McCain declared he had lost confidence in Rumsfeld — the brash Secretary of Defense had lost almost all his allies inside the White House. Just the mention of his name would cause aides to the President to grind their teeth and roll their eyes. He had become a liability to the President, and his advisers knew it and resented it. If the choice had been theirs, Rummy would have been shown the door months, if not years, ago. And that was the White House. Rumsfeld never had allies in the State Department.

After Bush declared his unbending support for Rumsfeld last week, it was telling how few aides and advisers to the President were willing to reaffirm what the President had said. When asked about Bush's Rumsfeld comments, one official didn't try to hide the pain the question caused him. He wouldn't talk about it. He and others made it clear that the President said "what he had to say." In other words, Bush's support for Rumsfeld would last only until the last polling station closed on Tuesday night.

Since it came just minutes after Speaker-elect Nancy Pelosi called for new civilian leadership at the Pentagon, the announcement of Rumsfeld's firing might be seen as an act of political expediency, a sacrificial offering to the newly powerful Democrats on Capitol Hill. And it was. But the truly expedient thing to do — the move that might actually have helped Bush and congressional Republicans when it mattered, before Election Day — would have been to fire Rumsfeld last week, last month or last year.

That Bush didn't act sooner was politically foolish. Far more seriously, by waiting so long he let his pride get in the way of a much-needed change in Iraq policy. That mistake didn't just cost the Republicans seats in the Congress. It may have cost lives.