Rumsfeld out, Gates in
President Bush and the incoming Democratic congressional leadership are headed for a collision over Iraq. President Bush says he continues to be committed to victory in Iraq; the Democrats seek an exit from Iraq which does not necessarily follow victory. The management of this collision will be the first challenge of the new secretary of defense, replacing Donald Rumsfeld. After what we hope will be a swift confirmation, Robert Gates, a former director of the CIA and the national security adviser to President George H.W. Bush, will face an intense two years during which success on the ground in Iraq will be his ultimate test.
We are confident that Mr. Rumsfeld will be remembered among the best secretaries of defense of our time. The continuing violence in Iraq prompts many critics to conclude that he is a failed secretary whose tactical misjudgments, rows with generals and failure to foresee the re- silience of Iraq’s insurgency are to be his legacies. We think not. History will judge, but even at the nadir of Mr. Rumsfeld’s popularity we see important achievements that his detractors minimize for reasons of convenience, political effect or myopia.
Mr. Rumsfeld engineered the toppling of the Taliban in Afghanistan, removing a dangerous haven of al Qaeda and international terrorism from which the murderers of September 11 drew aid, comfort and safe harbor. Mr. Rumsfeld drew deserved praise for orchestrating a swift and successful decapitation of a bloodthirsty Iraqi dictatorship, which some have called the most efficient complex military operation ever.
His rows with the generals were honorable and necessary. Finding wartime excellence among the many Washington peacetime generals was — and remains — vital. Three or four stars plus cocktailparty skills do not necessarily equate with wartime leadership ability.
The man’s lesser-noted accomplishments are considerable. Mr. Rumsfeld presided over a military transformation aimed at developing systems for a lighter, faster, less manpower-intensive military and which try to maximize the nationalsecurity benefit of the United States’ technological superiority — a process which has generated its own momentum. His successor will need to continue building on that. He presided over the revamping of the Pentagon’s personnelmanagement systems and the discarding of weapons systems ill-suited for the irregular and asymmetric warfare of the age of terrorism.
Mr. Rumsfeld’s record on post-invasion Iraq hangs on a resolution to the current war. Just about everything depends on what the coming months of the new and volatile political climate in Washington bring once he’s gone. If the problems in Iraq are resolved, future generations will see things very differently than his contemporary critics do. A large number of the secretary’s Iraq problems relate to divided authority over government functions in Iraq. One day the U.S. government must see the wisdom of having a genuine pro-consul with unity of authority.
Bob Gates is a dedicated public servant whom the Bush administration is entrusting much of its legacy. His decades of experience in intelligence and national security, his fairness and meticulousness, his skillfulness as a manager of large bureaucracies and his bipartisan appeal are valuable attributes a successor needs to move forward effectively. His acumen in intelligence earned through years of dedicated labor opens doors and mitigates interagency tensions.
This is a trying time for those who care about American national security. Mr. Gates deserves confirmation, and quickly.