Rumsfeld a Success as Defense Secretary

By Jim Simpson

By any definition, modern standards for political leaders are at historic lows. As the saying goes: “Washington couldn’t tell a lie, Nixon couldn’t tell the truth and Clinton couldn’t tell the difference.” We are just recovering from eight years at the hands of an administration which set new lows in both moral and activity standards for a chief executive.

Any evaluation of a current U.S. politician’s performance must be first put in the context of the times. We must first define what is wrong about modern leadership in the western world. Only then can we measure the performance of a given individual against this yardstick.

Bill Clinton and his administration seemed to be bent on working against the best interests of this country. They cut military spending to “hollow force” levels. They encouraged laxness in internal security policies that allowed a virtual hemorrhage of classified information to potential enemies. Their defensive maneuvers to avoid consequences of the many scandals they became embroiled in made the rule of law in this country almost irrelevant.

The unfortunate fact however, is that the Clinton administration was the logical endpoint of a long downward trend in political leadership ethics.

Measured against this declining standard, I give the Bush administration in general and Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld in particular, very high marks if for no other reason that they have reversed the tide of corrupt, sycophantic, poll-driven leaders of whom Clinton was only the worst.

Political Courage: First among Secretary Rumsfeld’s positive attributes is a willingness to think outside the box and to take risks.

Personally, I do not agree with his vision of a small, high tech, quick-reaction, futuristic military, because I do not agree with the fundamental premise that we are the world’s only superpower. To the contrary, the former Soviet Union still retains a vastly larger military in both numbers of personnel and numbers and types of weapons, conventional and not, and a demonstrated history of willingness to use them if necessary. We have no real knowledge of how they would fight, if it came to that. Our only record is in fighting their surrogates, and it is a pretty dismal record at that. Furthermore, while we call them “friends” they have been relentlessly and blatantly assisting every enemy on our list.

Regardless, Rumsfeld had the willingness, determination and political courage to go out on a limb in first articulating then promoting his policies. This alone is a refreshing change from the poll-driven, special-interest driven, politically correct but inestimably damaging policies of his predecessors.

Pragmatic Decision-Making: When we first went into Iraq, many policymakers, including Rumsfeld, thought the Iraqi people would get behind us immediately. This view reflected an all-to-common naiveté among American politicians that perennially underestimates the horrific impact Soviet-style population management techniques (practiced by the Ba’ath Party in Iraq) have on the psyche of the average citizen. They are still literally terrified of being dragged off in the middle of the night, and unlike our politicians, do not underestimate the ability of the secret police and Ba’athist supporters to identify and punish those who might support us, even during wartime.

Rumsfeld also originally thought to use former Ba’athists in postwar administration and law enforcement roles. He realized quickly the error of this optimism and called for a change in tactics toward eradication of the Ba’athists rather than attempting reconciliation.

In today’s partisan political environment, even something as simple as recognizing a mistake and fixing it quickly, is risky. Many politicians choose instead to dig their feet in and steadfastly defend their mistakes, thus compounding the problem, rather than face the inevitable criticism. To his credit, Rumsfeld chose to do the right thing

Liberals tend to view evil regimes that have adopted socialist economic policies as merely “flawed” by bad leadership. Saddam may have murdered millions, tortured millions more, and held the entire population in a state of terror, but hey, they have free medical care! A more “enlightened” leader, so goes the argument, would have implemented socialism the “right” way. It’s the perennial excuse for socialism’s failure and the reason so many true believers are critical of this administration’s decision to attack.

They bemoan the fact that barbarian America has invaded what could have been yet another socialist paradise, only it was “perverted” by corrupt leaders like Saddam, who once had the vision, but turned into a nasty Hilteresque brute. According to this myth, omniscient visionaries, like France’s idiot savant, Jacques Chirac, Germany’s intellectual sycophant of the left, Gerhardt Schroeder, and the U.N.’s visionary Koffi Annan could have effected change through peaceful means, by asking good old Saddam to step down in favor of a more “compassionate” socialist.

Effective Media Management: Unlike many Republican politicians, Rumsfeld has been extremely effective at managing the press. This sounds like a modest accomplishment but in fact is quite significant. Too many Republican administrations have been intimidated by the press to the point that they ignore the media, giving it the ability to manipulate policy – almost always in the liberal direction and rarely, if ever, in the best interest of the country.

For example, early on during the Afghan conflict, the news media attacked the administration for responding to a prison riot in Afghanistan with an overwhelming military response. That response managed to stop the rebellion in its tracks and in the process, killed a lot of the rioters. Also killed in the attack was a CIA operative who had been captured by the Taliban and Al Qaeda prisoners. The press demanded an investigation, not because of the agent’s death, but because so many prisoners were killed.

When asked by a reporter if the administration were going to launch an investigation, Rumsfeld responded by repeating the question, observing that she was questioning our emergency response to an unexpected, violent attack by the same enemy that launched the World Trade Center attack. Looking squarely at the reporter he said simply: “Amazing!” There were few calls for an investigation after that.

When Rumsfeld last week confessed to three European journalists that he had been unaware of a White House plan to exercise more direct control over the rebuilding of Iraq, the news media reflexively jumped on the incident as a possible sign the secretary is losing influence in the Bush administration. The real significance of that minor spat is that it was such a rarity for Rumsfeld, who has faced the press nonstop since 9/11 with poise and aplomb.

I believe Donald Rumsfeld was an excellent choice to lead the Defense Department during these difficult times. I may not agree with all of his policy proposals and decisions, but unlike many past leaders of that most important post, he has demonstrated political courage, and seems to be guided by his personal convictions rather than what the most recent polls and pundits say.

This is a refreshing change from many prior department heads, who have too often been guided by their own political calculus, and scarcely if at all interested in what is good for the military and good for the country.

Jim Simpson is a Contributing Editor of DefenseWatch. He can be reached at