The most eyebrow-raising moment at today's Senate Armed Services Committee hearing came when Democratic Sen. Evan Bayh asked Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld whether the time might come when it would be useful for him to step down—to prove how seriously Americans take the uproar over the Abu Ghraib tortures and to repair some of the damage to our reputation.
"That's possible," Rumsfeld instantly replied.
Earlier in the hearing, under questioning from Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham, Rumsfeld said he'd "resign in a minute" if he felt he could no longer be an "effective" secretary of defense. Rumsfeld also said, in his opening statement, that the incidents "occurred under my watch … I am accountable … I take full responsibility." In a ministerial government, these comments alone would guarantee resignation.
Yet it is exceedingly unlikely that Rummy will get the boot—and not just because we have a presidential system of government, and not just because our political language has been debased to the point where a word like "responsibility" means nothing.
Rumsfeld will almost certainly survive because President George W. Bush's political fortunes—at least for the moment—demand that he survive.
If Bush fires Rumsfeld, he would be admitting that he'd made a mistake in keeping Rummy onboard for so long or in hiring him for the job to begin with. Somewhere along the line, someone (Karl Rove?) advised Bush never to admit making a mistake. Up to a point, this was sound advice. To the extent Bush gets high marks in polls, they are chiefly for such traits as confidence, conviction, and consistency. He has to appear righteous—and right—to maintain these marks. For him to dump Rumsfeld—especially after saying several times that he'd keep him in his cabinet—would erode his entire image. The basis of his attacks on John Kerry (that he's a "flip-flopper") would seem hypocritical; the edifice of his re-election campaign could crumble.
If a president's (or presidential candidate's) most appealing slogan is, "I say what I mean and I mean what I say," the appeal starts to wash away if he changes his mind and retracts his words, especially if he does so under pressure.
Bush has other pressing reasons to keep Rumsfeld. Who would replace him? The Pentagon would be thrown into turmoil. By the rules of succession, the deputy secretary of defense would step up as acting secretary. But the deputy, Paul Wolfowitz, has even less credibility on Capitol Hill. In fact, Rumsfeld's entire inner circle is tainted—if not by the Abu Ghraib scandal, then by the controversies over the Iraq war and the "stovepiping" of false intelligence that led up to it. Confirmation hearings for a new secretary would be a golden opportunity to revisit each of these controversies in great detail, with an election just months away.
One more crucial factor: Rumsfeld, by all accounts, is a bureaucratic brawler. He will not go gently. He did not give up a lucrative executive's life and return to government in order to get tarred, feathered, and railroaded out of town. He also has a strong ally in Vice President Dick Cheney. The two worked side by side for Presidents Nixon and Ford; they have been constant allies in the internecine struggles of this administration. If Bush dumps Rumsfeld, he couldn't do so without Cheney's consent. Then watch out for the hellstorm.
No administration in recent memory has been so plagued by the parting shots of disloyal servants. Judging from the astonishing piece in the latest GQ, Secretary of State Colin Powell is now so disgruntled that he's authorizing his closest aides to trash his enemies—Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz, Dick Cheney, and Condoleezza Rice—in the harshest terms and on the record. Look for Rumsfeld to start trashing, too, if he's rudely shown the door. (This may also explain why George Tenet survives. Many presidents have learned the wisdom of treating CIA directors gently.)
Rumsfeld said nothing at today's hearings to exonerate himself. Quite the contrary. He admitted that he'd failed at one of his most important jobs—to keep the president informed of important matters. "I failed to recognize how important it was to elevate [revelations about the tortures] to a higher level," he said. Asked when he first told the president about the reports of torture, Rumsfeld replied, "I don't know." There were "thousands of things" that came up to his level in the Pentagon, and it was hard to say that this should be one of the few to bring to the president's attention.
Even now, the secretary seems to miss the point. He appears to think the issue is not the torture but the photographs. He didn't tell the president because, as he put it, "The problem at that point was one-dimensional. It wasn't three-dimensional. It wasn't photographs and video." At several points in the hearings, he talked about the unique problems posed by "the information age."
He also continued to dissemble, if not outright lie. The media didn't bring these tortures to the public eye, he insisted; the military did. Back on January 16, the U.S. Central Command put out a press release about it—"told the world." Let's look at that press release. It reads, in its entirety:
DETAINEE TREATMENT INVESTIGATION
BAGHDAD, Iraq – An investigation has been initiated into reported incidents of detainee abuse at a Coalition Forces detention facility. The release of specific information concerning the incidents could hinder the investigation, which is in its early stages. The investigation will be conducted in a thorough and professional manner. The Coalition is committed to treating all persons under its control with dignity, respect and humanity. Lt. Gen. Ricardo S. Sanchez, the Commanding General, has reiterated this requirement to all members of CJTF-7.
This, of course, revealed next to nothing.
At the same time, under questioning from Sen. Hillary Clinton, Rumsfeld maintained he didn't know anything about Gen. Taguba's report, which graphically detailed the tortures, until it was summarized in the press. The report, he said, "was not anywhere in the Pentagon." Yet Gen. Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, knew enough about the report—and the accompanying photos—to ask CBS to delay a story about them for two weeks. And when Clinton asked who decided to call CBS, the general replied that it "had been worked at lower levels, on my staff and the secretary's, for some time." In other words, for well over two weeks—how long is unclear—Rumsfeld's staff dealt with the problem. Yet Rumsfeld didn't know?
Elsewhere today, an enormous bucket of water was thrown on Rumsfeld's contention, all through the hearing, that Abu Ghraib was an isolated case. Pierre Kraehenbuehl, director of operations for the International Red Cross told reporters: "We were dealing here with a broad pattern, not individual acts. There was a pattern and a system," and not just at Abu Ghraib. Several stories have already noted that the Red Cross briefed senior U.S. officials about these acts some months ago—to no effect.
There are many unanswered questions, and—as Rumsfeld gloomily told the committee—many more photos yet to come. If the pressure builds and White House pollsters conclude that Rummy is a cancer that needs to be removed, Bush will remove him. But by that time, it will have spread far beyond the secretary.