Rummy, Romanism, and Rebellion

Maybe a military coup isn't such a bad idea.

Liberals are taking some comfort in the recent problems of Donald Rumsfeld. The sharp-tongued secretary of defense Patton-slapped a GI for daring to publicly ask his superior why he and his fellows had to scrounge for vehicle armor in the trash dumps of Kuwait while preparing to convoy in Iraq. Confronted with such cheek, the SecDef first blamed the laws of physics, then chided soldiers for whining about being asked to fight a war the military was apparently unprepared to fight—as if that was not any of Rumsfeld's doing.

The Q&A session with the troops finally revealed a chink in Rummy's armor—a self-righteous intellectual callousness toward the men and women in uniform who are pawns in his plans for reinventing the military and in the administration's plans for reinventing the world. This was the same man who said that the contributions of Vietnam's drafted soldiers had "no value." This is the man who, it was revealed last week, couldn't be bothered to personally sign the more than 1,000 death letters to the families who had lost a son or daughter in the war on terror.

Early in the war—when things were going well—some saw Rummy as a kind of appealing daddy sex symbol eager to dole out spankings, especially to the self-loathing media. In the new context of the Iraq insurgency, occupation, and of chickens coming home to roost, his grilling by the troops provided testimony a jury could understand: The Bush administration's buck-passing hubris knows no bounds, so when Dubya begs the enemy to "bring it on," he and Rummy can duck the consequences.

On Dec. 14, Bush awarded medals to the men most responsible for carrying forward his cocked-up war policies. Former CIA Director George Tenent, Iraq proconsul L. Paul Bremer, and Army Gen. Tommy Franks, who led the invasion of Iraq. Each received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest civilian honor. The honorees included the man who told Bush the discovery of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq would be a "slam dunk"; our own Baghdad strongman; and a military officer who has publicly wondered whether the U.S. Constitution would survive a WMD attack. It was another "Mission Accomplished" moment, a way Bush could declare victory and self-validate his policies.

Many pro-war Republicans are growing restless with Rummy, whom Bush described this week as "a caring fellow" who is doing "a really fine job." It's tempting to be encouraged by criticism from the right, but it's not all good. One of the most influential and vocal Rumsfeld critics is William Kristol, the editor of The Weekly Standard who has been one of the biggest cheerleaders for the neoconservative agenda to remake the world. He wrote a scathing editorial in The Washington Post saying he's fed up with the secretary of defense's arrogance. But as Kristol has elaborated in interviews, his main concern is that Rummy isn't deeply committed to Bush's plan to actively intervene and transform the Middle East.

Indeed, it's not that Rummy is too gung ho about war, it's that he's not gung ho enough. Whereas Rumsfeld wants to build a lighter, quicker military that is largely unsuited to long occupations such as the one in Iraq, Kristol wants a military with the manpower to occupy, nation build, and implement a foreign policy that requires us to have "boots on the ground" for so long they'll put down roots. Rumsfeld isn't interventionist enough, or ideological enough. In this light, Rummy, who is much criticized for trying to do too much with too little, looks like the model of restraint. Kristol seems to regard him as a weak-sister saboteur of the president's grand vision.

Which raises an interesting question: Is the military now a force of moderation? The Cold War caricature of the hawkish, right-wing U.S. military madman was captured in the character of Jack D. Ripper in the film Dr. Strangelove. Ripper was reminiscent of such real-world characters as Air Force Gen. Curtis LeMay, who wanted to nuke North Vietnam and was George C. Wallace's running mate in 1968. The likes of LeMay were often restrained by more cautious civilian leaders. Are we now experiencing the reverse?

A host of military minds have advised—even pleaded with—the administration to approach the war in Iraq with greater diligence, caution, and conservatism, often to be sacked as a result. Many retired senior generals and admirals endorsed John Kerry's more diplomacy-friendly approach. But rebellion and reason in the ranks is not tolerated. Secretary of State Colin Powell, having been used and abused by Bush, is now leaving, his reputation hanging like bones in a gibbet to remind everyone what happens to voices of moderation in an administration of extremism. Weirdly, Rumsfeld could be the next victim for failing to pass the neocons' purity test.

Bush seems to have renewed his own martial posturing as Rummy struggles. Did you notice that during his recent speech before the Marines at Camp Pendleton a couple of weeks ago, Bush sported a military-style Ike jacket? Usually, presidents go out of their way to remind people the commander in chief is a civilian, but Bush was garbed like a tin-pot dictator. He also plans a military extravaganza at his inauguration to celebrate the "peaceful transfer" of power.

Of course, such festivities also mimic the trappings of a coup. Which is interesting, because I'm left wondering: Would a real military coup bring about more moderate policies than Bush's own takeover of the military?

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