Were someone to draw a symbolic representation of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s personality, it might be a picture of sharp-edged knives pointing in all directions.
He is no marshmallow, and he has enemies aplenty. It does not follow that he should lose his job, at least not on the basis of the Iraqi prisoner scandal.
What has too seldom been mentioned since CBS aired disgusting photos of prisoner abuses on national television is that the Pentagon had made no secret that something repelling had transpired. In January, only a few days after learning of allegations, the Pentagon announced an investigation, and in March, the Pentagon announced charges against soldiers. Public announcements are not what is known as a cover-up.
And while it is always possible that fresh evidence will arise, there is not any convincing information at the moment about negligence or deception at the Washington level of leadership or of systemic, widespread abuse. The evidence as of now is of something else entirely — of a handful of people who acted contrary to the principles of the U.S. military and of the power of America’s self-correcting democracy to make amends for that which goes wrong.
Rumsfeld — his sharp edges mostly out of sight during a congressional hearing Friday — not only apologized for what happened in Iraq, but added, "I’m seeking a way to provide appropriate compensation to those detainees who suffered such grievous and brutal abuse and cruelty at the hands of a few members of the United States armed forces."
It was clear from the tough, anxious questioning that Congress will not abide anything less than an exhaustive exploration of what occurred and why and remedies that will endure for as long as U.S. troops are in Iraq. All of this is important morally as well as prudentially: The prison scandal is an enormous setback to the American cause in Iraq.
Some Democrats are demanding that Rumsfeld resign. The case they need to make is that Rumsfeld badly botched military policies in Iraq and Afghanistan, leading us to difficulties that could have been avoided with policies that more reasonable and competent people would have adopted. Perhaps that case can be made, but making it is far more complicated than most of the anti-Rumsfeld rhetoric suggests, especially the rhetoric that blames him for the prisoner abuses.