Rumsfeld's Free Pass on Iraq
Senators didn't ask, weren't told.
It's a tossup which is more galling: that Donald Rumsfeld digs himself a few feet deeper with each remark he makes before a congressional committee, or that his interrogators don't seem to notice.
Take this morning's hearing before the Senate appropriations committee, at which Rumsfeld appeared alongside not only the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the commander of U.S. forces in Iraq but also Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. The two Cabinet secretaries appeared jointly—an unusual event—to make the case for President Bush's $65 billion request for emergency funding to sustain the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
You'd think this would be a prime opportunity for Capitol Hill's top overseers to grill the Bush administration's top decision-makers on where they think the wars are going, the prospects for troop withdrawal or deeper immersion, the interplay of risks, opportunities, and budgets.
Sen. Robert Byrd, the ranking Democrat, posed some pertinent questions, or started to anyway. What are our plans, he asked, if all-out civil war erupts in Iraq? Will our troops hunker down, will they withdraw? If not, which side will they fight on? Do we have plans for such a contingency?
Rumsfeld replied, "The plan is to prevent a civil war and, to the extent one were to occur, to have the Iraqi security forces deal with it, to the extent they are able to."
That's not a plan, and Rumsfeld must know it. He even, wittingly or not, left an opening in his reply—Iraqi security forces will deal with it, "to the extent they are able to"—that any high-school debater would have plowed through with gusto. "To what extent are they able to?" would have been one decent follow-up (especially since U.S. officials in the field have noted that many of these security forces have stronger allegiances to ethnic factions than to a central government).
But nobody followed up.
Rumsfeld was asked about the Zogby poll reporting that 72 percent of American troops serving in Iraq think the United States should pull out within a year. He replied that he hadn't examined the poll, that he'd only read about it in the newspapers, and that he didn't believe it anyway, because every soldier he's talked with over there is enthusiastic about the mission.
Two reasonable follow-up questions that no senator bothered to pose:
Fred Kaplan is Slate's "War Stories" columnist and author of the book, The Insurgents: David Petraeus and the Plot to Change the American Way of War. He can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter.
Photograph of Donald Rumsfeld by Paul J. Richards/AFP/Getty Images.