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So Who’s “The Decider?”

Certainly Rumsfeld isn’t innocent when it comes to Iraq, but has the press forgotten who the commander-in-chief is?

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Now that Donald Rumsfeld has finally been given the hook, it’s a relief to realize that he planned and executed America’s failed war all by himself. That’s right, George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, Condoleeza Rice, Paul Wolfowitz, Doug Feith, Richard Perle, Tommy Franks, etc—why, they weren’t even in the room when it happened. Heck, they may have been out of the country for all anyone remembers, and I’m pretty sure a couple of them weren’t even born yet.

Am I wrong?

You’d never know it from reading, watching, and listening to the mainstream media coverage of Rummy’s “resignation.”

Howard Kurtz kept United Press International’s Pamela Hess and The Washington Post’s Thomas Ricks—talented, hardworking reporters who have each told plenty of truths about the war—focused tightly on the Rumsfeld angle to the exclusion of all else on CNN’s “Reliable Sources.” As a result, Hess called Rumsfeld’s firing “a necessary catharsis in the real therapeutic sense…I think that throwing Rumsfeld overboard, as poignant as it was actually for those of us watching it—because there’s this great man brought low by his own flaws—probably has to happen just psychologically for the nation, so that people can say, “OK, something is going change.”

But is it?

Rumsfeld served at the pleasure of the president, and the president decided that Rummy had to go only when faced with bottomed-out poll numbers, the loss of a Congressional majority, and the Baker/Hamilton Commission staring him in the face. The change in DoD leadership could be as much window dressing as the president’s denial that he ever adhered to the policy of “stay the course” a few weeks ago.

But on ABC’s “This Week” with George Stephanopoulos, Cokie Roberts took a page from New Gingrich’s playbook, blaming Rumsfeld for some of the Republican Congressional losses on Election Day: “You know if I were Nancy Johnson, a moderate Republican woman in Connecticut, I would be very angry that Rumsfeld wasn’t gone two weeks before. If I was Lincoln Chaffee who had a 62 percent approval rating of the voters who voted against him going out of the polls in Rhode Island.” George Will agreed that ditching Rummy earlier “would have saved some” Republican seats. Roberts and Will seem to hold Rumsfeld more responsible for the Iraq disaster than the president, the ultimate “decider” for the U.S. Armed Forces.

Even Joe Lieberman got into the act on “Meet the Press” when he tried to clarify some remarks from October 2003, claiming that he “thought the president should bring in a new secretary of defense because our policy in Iraq was collapsing then and somebody had to be held accountable.” Like Roberts and Will, Lieberman is apparently more comfortable holding Rummy responsible than the commander-in-chief.

Many in the print media followed suit. The Los Angeles Times’ neocon pundit, Max Boot, makes only glancing reference to the president in this attack on Rumsfeld’s leadership in Iraq. Ditto Newsweek’s John Barry and Michael Hirsh, who wrote an entire column which referenced President Bush as if he were a Rumsfeld aide who assisted with war plans, but was rarely close enough to the action to affect the situation in a meaningful way. “Historians will probably argue for decades,” they wrote, “over who gets most of the blame for the mistakes made in Iraq.”

Barry and Hirsch further redirect attention from the existing administration by describing how Rumsfeld “actively stymied Condoleezza Rice’s efforts to do her first-term job as national-security adviser…Sometimes he didn’t even return her calls. ‘Rumsfeld treated Condi like the hired help,’ says a White House staffer who would discuss the relationship only if he was not identified. ‘He did everything he could to humiliate her. And the president never intervened.’”

And the president never intervened. Talk about burying the lead…

Several hundred words into their analysis, the authors finally mention a salient fact about the president: he never took an active interest in the results on the ground and was never informed enough to question the judgments of his highly incompetent staff. (Remember Jay Gardner’s claim that Bush didn’t give him any instructions before sending him to the virtual dictator of Iraq?) This fish rotted from the head down.

All of this focus on Rumsfeld as the sole villain in the horror story developing in Iraq is consistent with Spencer Ackerman’s narrative on The American Prospect online. Ackerman has a notable neoconservative penchant for picking on Rumsfeld to the exclusion of every other conservative and neoconservative who led Americans to believe that Iraq would be a “cakewalk.”

William Kristol, for instance, once complained that “the Nancy Pelosi faction of the House Democrats, a large majority of Democratic grass-roots activists, the bulk of liberal columnists, The New York Times editorial page, and Hollywood…hate Don Rumsfeld so much they can’t bear to see his military strategy vindicated,” But he has recently been complaining about Rumsfeld’s “arrogant buck-passing”; the fact that he has “only grudgingly and belatedly been willing to adjust even a little bit to realities on the ground” in Iraq; and his habit of “breezily dodg[ing] responsibility and so glibly pass[ing] the buck.”

Joe Lieberman, meanwhile, used to worry that “Secretary Rumsfeld’s removal would delight foreign and domestic opponents of America’s presence in Iraq,” but has kinda changed his mind. Andrew Sullivan, another former lover of all things Rumsfeldian, diagnoses America’s defense secretary as “increasingly deranged.”

You see, the war was a great idea; it’s just that a crazy man was put in charge of it (though he was really good at hiding all that until, well, you’ll have to look that up).

For once in my life I’m going to have to say that it was President Bush who had things right. When asked by a Washington Post reporter on Air Force One about various screw-ups in Iraq, Bush responded, “We had an accountability moment, and that’s called the 2004 election.”

Well, we just had another one, buster…and it wasn’t about Donald Rumsfeld.

Eric Alterman is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and the author of six books. His popular blog, “Altercation,” moved from MSNBC.com to Media Matters. The new URL is http://mediamatters.org/altercation/

The positions of American Progress, and our policy experts, are independent, and the findings and conclusions presented are those of American Progress alone. A full list of supporters is available here. American Progress would like to acknowledge the many generous supporters who make our work possible.

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Eric Alterman

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