Rumsfeld has not merely made mistakes, he has made fatal mistakes. Defense secretaries don't decide whether to go to war, but they do decide how to fight the war once it begins. Even most supporters of the war in Iraq acknowledge that Rumsfeld has fought it in a disastrous manner. The litany of errors has been recited many times—distorting prewar intelligence about weapons of mass destruction, whittling down troop levels that the Army chiefs recommended for postwar stability, torpedoing State Department plans for occupation, alienating traditional allies whose assistance is now desperately needed, covering up crimes at Abu Ghraib.
What lessons are the new Cabinet officers to derive from Rumsfeld's retention? It's one thing for a president to demand a Cabinet that follows consistent policies. (Among Jimmy Carter's failures was his hesitation to take out the long knives and choose between his dovish secretary of state, Cyrus Vance, and his hawkish national security, Zbigniew Brzezinski.) It's another thing to demand a Cabinet so loyal and pliant that its members never dare raise arguments, doubts, or questions about the president's leanings.
Rumsfeld's survival—which, given Colin Powell's dismissal, amounts to triumph—tells the newcomers that to get along they must go along; that they're working not in a government but in an echo chamber.