Monday, April 17, 2006

Problems with the Generals Criticisms of Rumsfeld

We've all heard the maxim about too many cooks, but it seems that it could be equally applied to former Generals. Likewise with the always relevant "sour grapes" test of Washington critics which I think will ultimately undercut this effort.

It is now old news that a group of retired generals has made a significant point about trying to get Don Rumsfeld to resign. And based upon some reports, including this comment buried in this New York Times article, there seems to have been an effort on the part of the various retired generals to recruit others into the ranks of the disgruntled:
Current and former officers said they were unaware of any organized campaign to seek Mr. Rumsfeld's ouster, but they described a blizzard of telephone calls and e-mail messages as retired generals critical of Mr. Rumsfeld weighed the pros and cons of joining in the condemnation.
This is fairly telling, as it undercuts the entire appearance that the generals are attempting to create of independent and candid criticisms of the Secretary. But dismissing that for a second, the criticisms being leveled at Rumsfeld are conclusory. He is charged with being incompetent, not building "a strong team", but more than anything for having a tough leadership style. The impression with which I am left is that these criticisms have very political rather than military underpinnings. We don't know the facts supporting these opinions, and we don't know what advice Rumsfeld denied, or whether it was even really offered. But Gen. Batiste's comments about not building a strong enough team are particularly interesting, given the fact that it sounds like he is returning to the whole "unilateral" argument--a very political one which has nothing to do with the work of the Secretary of Defense.

But these generals took a significant hit to their cause when they were--officially or otherwise--joined by the General and once and future presidential candidate, Wesley Clark. If they wanted to avoid the appearance that their opposition to Rumsfeld had a basis in anything but politics, which is becoming a harder and harder thing for them to do, Clark probably ended any remaining hope they had. Clark knows nothing about Rumsfeld's leadership, as he never served under the guy. And his record of praising the Administration and the Iraq War effort, and waffling when it became politically necessary to do so makes any statements that he offers on the topic suspect, especially given the fact the he will almost certainly aspire once again to be a second-tier candidate for the Democratic nomination in 2008. So no matter how this gets spun, this was not a helpful development for the generals.

But the one gripe that seems to really be making headlines was that Rumsfeld had a tough leadership style. He was critical. As one supportive retired general stated this morning, there were a couple of times that Rumsfeld ate him for lunch when that general was for some reason not prepared to advise him on whatever issue was at hand. But that's life. We all have had hard bosses who demanded much and weren't happy when they didn't get it. We have also had bosses who rejected our advice in favor of another's input. We have been snubbed, blown off, had our feelings hurt, etc. But these are matters of personal chemistry and thickness of skin rather than competence. And it sounds a heck of a lot like these were the generals whose advice was not nearly so favored as that of other generals. And so as I stated earlier, those sour grapes produce a particularly bitter whine.

And this creates another very real perception problem for this disaffected group. Because when the most resonant cry can be reduced to an accusation of hurt feelings, the push for Rumsfeld's resignation carries significantly less urgency and relevance.

The other matter is that Rumsfeld is trying to do something a heck of a lot more controversial than any of his predecessors: he is trying to modernize the military. To put it succinctly, he is throwing out much of the old and trying to bring the military into the 21st Century. That kind of thing will rub the old guard wrong. And agents of change are generally unpopular with their contemporaries who are just fine with the system as it is.

But more to the point, the Editors over at the Wall Street Journal encapsulate the arguments beautifully. And their criticisms center around the notion that some of these generals, most notably the very vocal Anthony Zinni, just don't get it when it comes to the war on terror. Zinni thought that an attack on Iraq would destabilize the Middle East. But his view ignores the fact that 9/11 was the result of over 10 years of Middle East "stability". And these calls also ignore the fact that while some thin-skinned generals may not like Rumsfeld, other rogue nations such as Iran, North Korea and Syria like him even less.

And apparently being a whit more practical and smarter than some of these philosophical former generals, dictators know that it's game over for them if their regime is toppled. Just ask Saddam who now lives in a cell and whose daily highlight is washing his own drawers before he gets a death sentence.

Rumsfeld is the tip of Bush's spear. And he isn't trading it in for anything.


Blogger Retired LTC said...

Oh please. Wes Clark has been calling for Rumsfeld's ouster since at least as early as Sept 2003. Why shouldn't he reiterate those statements to support these six when they're taking so much flak for their very right to speak?

If you think guys like Clark don't know what the active duty generals in the Pentagon are saying RIGHT NOW, you don't know much about how the military works. All these generals (and there are eight or nine now) are just the tip of the iceburg.

4:22 PM  

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