The Pentagon's potentially Pyrrhic victory

Rumsfeld dodged the criticism of retired generals. Did he emerge unscathed in terms of confronting Iran?

By NATHAN GUTMAN
April 20, 2006 22:19
runsfeld iraq 298.88

rumsfeld 298.88. (photo credit: AP [file])

 
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US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld has managed to survive the worst attack yet on his political career. After being called to resign not only by columnists and politicians but also by retired generals, Rumsfeld has proved he is almost immune to criticism - and that he has one powerful friend in the White House who is willing to stick his neck out to protect him. Israeli and other observers in the Middle East followed the debate between Rumsfeld and the retired generals with interest, to see the possible far-reaching effect the seemingly internal political fight in Washington has on the region. If Rumsfeld had lost and been forced to leave the Pentagon, this would have constituted an admission of failure in Iraq. But even Rumsfeld's victory could be seen in the Middle East as a negative sign, indicating that US forces are being led by a person who lacks support even within his own military. The main issue concerning Rumsfeld's future as Defense Secretary is Iran. The outcome of Teheran's nuclear projects is now in the hands of the State Department, with diplomats trying to convince Security Council members to get tough and start using sanctions to deter President Ahmadinejad from moving forward. But before President Bush's term is over, dealing with this issue might also reach the hands of the Pentagon specialists in charge of planning a military strike against the nuclear facilities. The administration denied reports last week that it was already in the planning phase, but there is little doubt that contingency programs will be drafted sooner or later, just in case. Will Rumsfeld's shaky political standing have any effect on this kind of planning and on the ability to carry out an attack? Some think it will. In the New York Times this week, columnist Thomas Friedman set the tone for the debate when he stated that if the choices boil down to a nuclear Iran or a war led by Rumsfeld, he'd take a nuclear Iran. "The level of incompetence that the Bush team has displayed in Iraq, and its refusal to acknowledge any mistakes or remove those who made them, make it impossible to support this administration in any offensive military action against Iran," he wrote. It would be even more difficult to get the American public to rally behind an administration deciding to attack Iran, after being told by former generals that the person at the helm is "arrogant" and "abusive," in the words of retired major-general John Batiste; that he suffers from "poor military judgment," as retired general Anthony Zinni put it; and that he is "incompetent strategically, operationally and tactically," as retired major-general Paul Eaton said. Such criticism may not have been enough to drive Rumsfeld out of the Pentagon, but it undoubtedly made Americans even more skeptical about entering into an additional war. Even without the latest round of accusations, it is hard to see the Bush administration persuading the public to support another major military operation in light of public opinion polls showing a constant decline in support for the war in Iraq and a steady increase in the number of Americans who think the war was a mistake altogether. On military issues, the administration is already seen as a lame duck, even though it is only in the first half of its second term. At the same time, however, other polls indicate that since the Iranian nuclear issue was introduced to the American public as an actual threat more than a year ago, there has been a steady increase in public interest and concern. This fact, combined with Ahmadinejad's belligerent statements, could lead Americans to support military action against Iran, even if it is carried out by an administration they do not trust on such issues. FOR ISRAELIS watching Rumsfeld quarrel with a group of retired generals, there is another point of interest that has nothing to do with Iran. It is the relationship between a civilian leader of the Defense Department and the military men and women who are in charge of the troops. As the coalition negotiations between Kadima and the Labor Party continue, the Israeli public is facing the possibility that Amir Peretz, who did not emerge from the military, will become defense minister. This is a nothing short of a revolution in Israel. In America, however, it is simply the way things are done. As is true of most of his predecessors, Rumsfeld is not a military man. He is a politician who acquired some expertise on issues of national security and defense in previous positions he held. Since the American political system is used to having a civilian head the defense apparatus, the attack against this particular civilian by retired generals was not considered extraordinary. Nor was it a blow from which he could not recover. Such a scenario in Israel could be far more difficult. If Peretz does, indeed, end up holding the defense portfolio, he will face a much tougher challenge if confronted by members of the military, whether active or retired. While the American public perceived the attack on Rumsfeld as professional criticism (or political, depending on their stance on the war in Iraq), in Israel, the views of those in uniform are always regarded as more significant than those of civilians. Had the generals-Rumsfeld debate taken place in Israel, one could assume that it would be the generals emerging victorious. IT'S HARD to say how long Rumsfeld will continue to enjoy the backing of the president. But one thing is clear: The latest spat put off any thought of replacing the Defense Secretary, since such an act would now be seen as a caving in to the critics and as an admission that their criticism was justified. If Rumsfeld does leave the Pentagon in the near or far future, the name mentioned as his replacement is Senator Joe Lieberman, the hawkish Democrat who supports the war in Iraq - considered a mainstream politician who could mend relations between the two parties on issues concerning the war. Lieberman, America's most prominent Jewish politician, is also one of Israel's greatest supporters in the US. Will he make any policy shifts regarding Iran if he is chosen to replace Rumsfeld? Lieberman gave a clue in an interview to the Jerusalem Post this week, in which he said that as a last resort, the US could launch an attack against the Iranian nuclear sites which would delay and deter the program. He also said that the US is probably incapable of destroying the whole program. But Lieberman is still far from the Pentagon. And Rumsfeld, recovering from a difficult week on the home front, is not going anywhere. At least not yet.

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