Issue of 2006-05-01 Posted 2006-04-24
In the ongoing South Americanization of political culture north of the border—a drawn-out historical journey whose markers include fiscal recklessness, an accelerating wealth gap between the rich and the rest, corruption masked by populist rhetoric, a frank official embrace of the techniques of “dirty war,” and, by way of initiating the present era, a judicial autogolpe installing a dynastic presidente—what has been dubbed the Revolt of the Generals is one of the feebler effusions. But it is striking all the same. By last week, the junta had swelled to six members: General Anthony C. Zinni, of the Marine Corps (four stars); Lieutenant General Gregory Newbold, also of the Marines (three stars); and Major Generals John Batiste, Paul D. Eaton, John Riggs, and Charles H. Swannack, Jr., of the Army (two stars). Some reckon that Wesley Clark (Army, four stars), William E. Odom (ditto, three stars), and Bernard E. Trainor (Marines, three stars) are entitled to spots as auxiliary members. All these generals have said devastating things about the job performance of the current Secretary of Defense, particularly with respect to the Iraq war. Their critiques vary—some of them see the war as a series of tactical blunders, others as a strategic disaster doomed from the start—but on one point the Pentagon Six are unanimous: Please. Bring us the head of Donald Rumsfeld.
This brass band of clarion calls for Rumsfeld’s resignation or dismissal has occasioned a certain amount of hand-wringing about alleged threats to the constitutional principle of civilian control of the military. But, as military coups go, this one is pretty weak tea by hemispheric standards. Instead of seizing the radio stations and the Presidential Palace, our disgruntled generals are content to overrun the op-ed pages, the bookstore signing tables, and the greenrooms of the cable-TV news talk shows. Also (and this is not a small point), the generals in question, however youthful and vigorous some of them may appear, are retired. They are no longer links in the chain of command; not being subordinate, they can’t be insubordinate. They are civilians. And they are every bit as entitled to express their views publicly, and to give their former civilian superiors a hard time in the process, as were Andrew Jackson in 1824, and Dwight Eisenhower in 1952—not to mention the nine other ex-generals who became President, beginning with General George Washington (ret.), in 1789.
There’s nothing new, let alone unconstitutional, about the bitching of pensioned-off generals. What is unusual—unprecedented, apparently—is for so many to speak out so strongly against a prominent architect of an ongoing war and to demand his removal. But then it is also unusual (though not, alas, unprecedented) for the United States to fight a war of choice on the basis of ideological fervor and faulty or falsified intelligence. And it is not just unusual but unprecedented for the stated primary aims of such a war (in this case, to prevent Iraq from obtaining weapons of mass destruction and from aiding terrorist attacks on the American homeland) to have been achieved before a shot was fired, forcing the war’s advocates to scramble for new ones.
The generals’ revolt of 2006 has resonated. One reason, no doubt, is that the experience of these particular generals suggests that they know what they are talking about. Three of the six—Batiste, Eaton, and Swannack—held positions of command in Iraq; a fourth, Zinni, is steeped in the region, having served as chief of the U.S. Central Command and as President Bush’s own special envoy to the Middle East. A second reason is their relative immunity to assaults of the kind that right-wing publicists and talk-radio hosts routinely launch at the patriotism and integrity of Iraq-war critics. One or two bemedalled warriors can be taken down that way; a dense pack is not so easily Swift-boated.
If the generals have struck a chord, a third reason, surely, is a widespread public hunger for some sort of accountability. The White House dimly understands this; hence last week’s highly touted “shake-up,” which saw the departure of the President’s hapless press secretary and the lateral transfer of Karl Rove from deputy chief of staff for policy to just plain deputy chief of staff. These moves, though, are entirely beside the point. If Bush were serious about stanching the hemorrhage of public support for any kind of American role in Iraq, then Rumsfeld’s exit—a step that has been suggested not only by generals and Democrats but also by conservative hawks like George Will, Max Boot, David Brooks, and Bill Kristol—would be the obvious beginning. The President’s response has been an adamant refusal. “I’m the decider,” he said last Tuesday. “And I decide what is best. And what’s best is for Don Rumsfeld to remain as the Secretary of Defense.”
His reasons for this decision are obscure, a matter for speculation—wild speculation, as he might phrase it. “We had an accountability moment,” Bush said a few days before his second Inaugural, “and that’s called the 2004 election.” Perhaps he thinks that that was the last such moment he owes the country; perhaps dumping Rumsfeld would feel too much like another one. Perhaps his attachment to Rumsfeld—whom the elder President Bush is known to dislike—has something to do with the younger’s need for substitute fathers. Perhaps he is simply afraid to lose him, for reasons he understands no better than the rest of us. A couple of weeks ago, answering a question from a student after giving a speech at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies, Bush provided a hint of the emotional texture of his extraordinary dependence on his Secretary of Defense. “My question,” the young woman said,
is in regards to private military contractors. The Uniform Code of Military Justice does not apply to these contractors in Iraq. I asked your Secretary of Defense a couple months ago what law governs their actions.
The President: I was going to ask him. Go ahead. (Laughter) Help. (Laughter)
Q: I was hoping your answer might be a little more specific. (Laughter) Mr. Rumsfeld answered that Iraq has its own domestic laws, which he assumed applied to those private military contractors. However, Iraq is clearly not currently capable of enforcing its laws. . . . Mr. President, how do you propose to bring private military contractors under a system of law?
The President : I appreciate that very much. I wasn’t kidding. (Laughter ) I was going to—I pick up the phone and say, Mr. Secretary, I’ve got an interesting question. (Laughter ) This is what delegation—I don’t mean to be dodging the question, although it’s kind of convenient in this case, but never— (laughter ). I really will—I’m going to call the Secretary and say you brought up a very valid question, and what are we doing about it? That’s how I work. I’m—thanks. (Laughter )
Thanks? No. No, thanks. (And no laughter.) He’s the decider, and there’s the rub