McNamara apologized, but will Rumsfeld?

Any self-criticism by one side would become fodder for the other

Posted: Sunday, July 12, 2009

Late in his life, Robert McNamara became a sad study in what can happen when a Pentagon leader eventually regrets taking a country into a disastrous war and attempts to atone. His belated acknowledgment of doubts and error in managing the Vietnam War came too late for many, and after his death last week he was remembered as a tragic and sorrowful figure.

With the United States enmeshed in a new war with more than its share of poor planning, misguided strategy and failed leadership, McNamara's haunting example prompts the question: Will anyone apologize for Iraq?

While in office, Bush administration officials who played important roles in deciding to invade Iraq and in directing the early years of U.S. occupation showed great reluctance to acknowledge error, let alone express regret. Although President George W. Bush eventually recognized the need to change strategy and approved a surge in U.S. forces, neither he nor his senior staff ever hinted at doubts about the basic enterprise.

Out of power now, none has displayed remorse for what many Americans see as a damnable misadventure, too costly in lives, money and national image. The few once high-ranking officials who have produced memoirs - former CIA director George Tenet, ex-Pentagon civilian policy chief Douglas Feith and retired Gen. Richard Myers, who served as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff - have sounded largely defensive about the record. Not bothering to wait to write his book, former vice president Dick Cheney has remained outspokenly combative since leaving the White House. Even Colin Powell, whose reservations about the war while secretary of state are now widely known, has never as a private citizen expressed a lack of support for the effort.

The former major player who has had the least to say publicly about Iraq is the one who held McNamara's old job and is frequently saddled with most of the blame for what went wrong with the war: Donald Rumsfeld.

The parallels between Rumsfeld and McNamara are strong - up to a point. Both men took charge of the Pentagon bent on exercising greater civilian control over the military. Both were determined to transform the military bureaucracy into a more efficient, more adaptable organization. And both were perceived as arrogant, abrasive and impatient.

But where the two differed profoundly was in how they regarded their tenures in the end. While McNamara, even before he left office, started to doubt the purpose of the Vietnam War and the prospect of victory, Rumsfeld has never appeared to waver in the conviction that invading Iraq was the right thing to do and that the U.S. war plan was sound. When I pressed him, during a final interview for my recently published biography, on whether he had any regrets about his conduct of the war, he dismissed the question as a favorite press query unworthy of reply.

Rumsfeld remains filled with a bitter sense that perceptions of the war and of his role in it have been badly distorted by one-sided media coverage, much of it based, in his view, on self-serving accounts by State Department and National Security Council officials.

"The intellectual dishonesty on the part of the press is serious," he told me, adding that "a strong incentive to be negative and dramatic" infused much of the coverage. "It's a formula that works. It gets Pulitzers; it gets promotions; it gets name identification on the front page above the fold."

Part of the formula, Rumsfeld said, involved pillorying him along with Bush and Cheney but sparing Powell and Condoleezza Rice, who was national security adviser before taking over at the State Department. As an example, he noted accusations that Bush and Cheney lied about Saddam Hussein's possession of weapons of mass destruction in making the case for the invasion. "They never say Colin Powell lied," Rumsfeld declared. "They don't say Condi lied."

The string of miscalculations about the Iraq war has been well-documented. In addition to invading largely on what turned out to be a false premise that Iraq had WMD stockpiles, the Bush administration planned inadequately for the aftermath, wrongly assuming a relatively stable environment that would allow most U.S. forces to withdraw quickly. U.S. authorities were slow to counter the unanticipated insurgency. Instead, they clung to unrealistic assumptions about the readiness of Iraqi forces and politicians to take over, pursuing a course until early 2007 that saw rising violence and nearly led to civil war.

Rumsfeld contests this view of the war's management. He contends that the strategy he followed from 2003 through 2006 largely succeeded - inflicting substantial enemy losses, developing capable Iraqi forces and establishing a new Iraqi government. The shift in strategy and surge in U.S. forces that occurred in early 2007, after Rumsfeld left, are credited with pulling Iraq back from the brink of total disaster. But such a strategy would not have worked earlier, he argues, because conditions were not right.

The problem with this thinking is that it overestimates what Rumsfeld's strategy accomplished and underestimates what a better-run counterinsurgency program from the beginning could have achieved. Other former Bush administration officials have been more willing than Rumsfeld to admit serious mistakes. But they say acknowledging error is different from conceding that the war shouldn't have been fought at all. Mistakes made in good faith, they argue, are not a reason to say "I'm sorry."

"McNamara's apology was essentially because he acknowledged knowing at the time that the enterprise was not achievable," said Larry Di Rita, who served as a top aide to Rumsfeld. "As far as I'm aware, none of the top officials in the former administration, even if they think they could or should have done something different in Iraq, believed that the enterprise was not achievable."

Other factors also make it much less likely that Rumsfeld or any of the others with a major hand in Iraq will step forward to voice regret. For one thing, there is much blame to go around. It is shared not just by senior Pentagon civilians but by uniformed commanders and top White House, CIA and State Department officials. While Rumsfeld, for instance, may be most responsible for the decisions on how the war was waged, others, including his deputy, Paul Wolfowitz, served as the intellectual architects of the invasion.

Further, the political debate over the war has yet to cool sufficiently to ensure that any self-criticism by one side, let alone expressions of contrition, won't be used to some advantage by the other. "It's still highly political," Feith said last week in an interview. "And I just don't think there's any reason for the people who are on the receiving end of a political attack to play the game of the political attackers."

More time may simply be needed. After all, McNamara waited 28 years to publish his remorseful look back. "At some point in history, the nation, including a lot of military people, will deeply regret all this," said a former member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff during the Bush years. "But these things have to be digested and contemplated on for a period of time."

Waiting brings an additional advantage for those who led the United States into war: A more positive outcome is still possible. Conditions in Iraq appear considerably more salvageable now than 2 ½ years ago when Rumsfeld was replaced. If Iraq ultimately emerges as a stable country, the mistakes of the early years can be portrayed simply as the kinds of errors experienced in any conflict.

Whether anyone ever apologizes, history at least is due an honest, detailed accounting of the actions and motivations of Rumsfeld and his colleagues. "What's most useful is that we do a cold, hard analysis of the decisions that were made and learn from them," said John Nagl, a retired Army lieutenant colonel and expert on counterinsurgency warfare who is president of the Washington-based Center for a New American Security.

More important than hearing Rumsfeld say he's sorry for what he did may be getting a frank explanation of why he did it.

• Bradley Graham is the author of "By His Own Rules: The Ambitions, Successes, and Ultimate Failures of Donald Rumsfeld." He served as a Pentagon correspondent for The Washington Post for more than a decade.

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