The Generals War
April 17, 2006; Page A16

So when did Generals cease to be responsible for outcomes in war? We ask that question amid the latest calls by certain retired senior military officers for Donald Rumsfeld to resign over U.S. difficulties in Iraq.

Major General Charles H. Swannack Jr., for one, was quoted last week as saying the Defense Secretary's "absolute failures in managing the war against Saddam in Iraq" mean he is not "the right person" to continue leading the Pentagon. Mr. Swannack, who commanded the 82nd Airborne in Iraq, joins other ex-uniformed Iraq War critics such as former Centcom Commander Anthony Zinni and retired Army Major General John Batiste. But there's far more behind this firefight than Mr. Rumsfeld's performance.

Mr. Zinni in particular neither fought the Iraq War nor supported it in the first place. He is a longtime advocate of "realism" in the Middle East, which is fancy-speak for leaving Arab dictators alone in the name of "stability." What Mr. Zinni really opposes is President Bush's "forward strategy of freedom," not the means which the Administration has waged the Iraq campaign.

As for those who've raised the issue of competence, we'd be more persuaded if they weren't so impossibly vague. If their critique is that Mr. Rumsfeld underestimated the Sunni insurgency, well, so did the CIA and military intelligence. Retired General Tommy Franks, who led and planned the campaign that toppled Saddam Hussein, took a victory lap after the invasion even as the insurgency gathered strength.

If their complaint is that Mr. Rumsfeld has since fought the insurgents with too few troops, well, what about current Centcom Commander John Abizaid? He is by far the most forceful advocate of the "small footprint" strategy -- the idea that fewer U.S. troops mean less Iraqi resentment of occupation.

Our point here isn't to join the generals, real or armchair, in pointing fingers of blame for what has gone wrong in Iraq. Mistakes are made in every war; there's a reason the word "snafu" began as a military acronym whose meaning we can't reprint in a family newspaper. But if we're going to start assigning blame, then the generals themselves are going to have to assume much of it.

A recent article by former Army Colonel Douglas Macgregor for the Center for Defense Information details how the U.S. advance on Baghdad in March and April 2003 was slowed against Mr. Rumsfeld's wishes by overcautious commanders on the scene. That may have allowed Saddam and many of his supporters to escape to fight the insurgency. General Abizaid also resisted the first assault on Fallujah, in April 2004, which sent a signal of U.S. political weakness. We don't agree with all of Mr. Macgregor's points, but it is likely that these Rumsfeld critics are trying to write their own first, rough draft of historic blame shifting.

Our own view is that the worst mistakes in Iraq have been more political than military, especially in not establishing a provisional Iraqi government from the very start. Instead, the U.S. allowed itself to be portrayed as occupiers, a fact that the insurgency exploited. But the blame for that goes well beyond Mr. Rumsfeld -- and would extend to then-National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice and to Mr. Bush himself.

Mr. Rumsfeld's largest mistake may have been giving L. Paul Bremer too free a hand to govern like a viceroy in 2003 and 2004 when a more rapid turnover of political power to Iraqis, and more rapid training of Iraqi forces, might have made a big difference. More than anything else, that unnecessary delay in Iraq's political and self-defense evolution has contributed to the current instability.

But that is for the historians to sort out. What matters now is doing what it takes to prevail in Iraq, setting up a new government and defeating the terrorists. How firing Mr. Rumsfeld will help in any of this, none of the critics say. They certainly aren't offering any better military strategy for victory.

More than likely, Mr. Rumsfeld's departure would create new problems, starting with a crisis of confidence in Iraq about American staying power. What do Mr. Rumsfeld's critics imagine Iraqis think as they watch former commanders assigning blame? And how would a Rumsfeld resignation contribute to the credible threat of force necessary to meet America's next major security challenge, which is Iran's attempt to build a nuclear bomb? Sacking the Defense Secretary mid-conflict would only reinforce the Iranian mullahs' belief that they have nothing to worry about because Americans have no stomach for a prolonged engagement in their part of the world.

The anti-Rumsfeld generals have a right to their opinion. But there's a reason the Founders provided for civilian control of the military, and a danger in military men using their presumed authority to push elected Administrations around. As for Democrats and their media allies, we can only admire their sudden new deference to the senior U.S. officer corps, which follows their strange new respect for the "intelligence community" they also once despised. U.S. military recruiters might not be welcome on Ivy League campuses, but they're heroes when they trash the Bush Administration.

Mr. Rumsfeld's departure has been loudly demanded in various quarters for a couple of years now, without much success, and on Friday Mr. Bush said he still has his every confidence. We suspect the President understands that most of those calling for Mr. Rumsfeld's head are really longing for his.