Personal Accountability Demands that Rumsfeld Resign

Personal Accountability Demands that Rumsfeld Resign

Last week, retired Army Maj. Gen. John Batiste joined a distinguished group of former high-level military officials who in the past month have called for Donald H. Rumsfeld to resign as defense secretary.

Mr. Batiste, commander of the 1st Infantry Division in Iraq from 2004 to 2005, cites Mr. Rumsfeld's mismanagement of the war's planning and execution as a major source of the military's problems in the region, including abuses at Abu Ghraib prison.

Retired Marine Gen. Anthony Zinni, Army Maj. Gen. Paul D. Eaton, Marine Lt. Gen. Gregory S. Newbold, Army Maj. Gen. John Riggs and Army Maj. Gen. Charles H. Swannack Jr. have all reached similar conclusions. But Mr. Batiste's voice is particularly resonant because he recently rejected a promotion that would have made him the No. 2 U.S. military officer in Iraq. His critiques simply cannot be dismissed as the grumbling of a disgruntled employee who feels unappreciated by his superiors.

History, however, strongly suggests that Mr. Rumsfeld will not go beyond making half-hearted offers to resign when he is confident that President Bush will ask him to stay. This is tantamount to a public pardoning. But it is not at all the same as Mr. Rumsfeld taking personal responsibility as head of the Defense Department for what has happened – and what continues to happen – in Iraq.

Unfortunately, Mr. Rumsfeld is only one of many recent defense secretaries who were not willing to hold themselves accountable for what happened during their watch.

Nearly 10 years ago, a terrorist attack on the Khobar Towers – a housing complex in Dharan, Saudi Arabia – killed 19 Americans and wounded hundreds of others. Republican Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania and Republican House Speaker Newt Gingrich of Georgia knew immediately what had to happen: Defense Secretary William J. Perry must resign.

There was broad bipartisan support for Mr. Perry at the time, yet even some of his supporters believed that Mr. Specter and Mr. Gingrich were right that the person at the top should be held accountable.

Mr. Perry, picked by President Bill Clinton, did not resign over this incident even after he learned that the building was vulnerable because not all recommended security measures had been put in place.

Mr. Perry concluded that he would resign only if he was found to be derelict in his duty. Indeed, it is difficult to establish that the towers attack amounted to more than inadvertent negligence on the secretary's part. He certainly had other important matters to occupy his attention, such as a peacekeeping mission in Bosnia.

But is "dereliction of duty" really the appropriate threshold for determining when a defense secretary should step down?

To establish that as the standard is to make resignation an admission of guilt – and therefore something to avoid at all costs for a host of personal and political reasons – rather than a public acknowledgment that something profoundly unacceptable has taken place, in spite of one's best efforts.

Mr. Rumsfeld has described the abuses at Abu Ghraib in such terms, but he and Mr. Bush seem to think that by resigning he would be confessing to having orchestrated the torture of prisoners there when, in fact, it might send precisely the opposite message to the world.

Instead, the blame for Abu Ghraib has been shouldered by a handful of low-ranking military men and women, which has left the Bush administration open to charges of scapegoating. The same occurred in the aftermath of the Khobar Towers blast, when blame was pinned – many thought unfairly – on the commander of Air Force personnel in Dharan, Brig. Gen. Terryl J. Schwalier. The Air Force chief of staff, Gen. Ronald R. Fogleman, resigned in protest.

But Mr. Perry and Mr. Rumsfeld are only the more recent examples of defense secretaries who are reluctant to hold themselves personally accountable.

Harold Brown, President Jimmy Carter's Pentagon chief, saw no reason to resign when eight Americans died in a failed attempt to rescue American hostages in Iran in April 1980. Caspar W. Weinberger, who served during both administrations of President Ronald Reagan, continued to serve after a truck bomb in Beirut killed 241 American servicemen in October 1983. Les Aspin, Mr. Clinton's first defense secretary, did not quit after 18 Army Rangers were killed in Somalia in October 1993.

Did any of these events constitute dereliction of duty by a defense secretary? That can be debated, but certainly what has happened in Iraq comes closer to qualifying as dereliction of duty.

We hope that Mr. Rumsfeld will prove recent history wrong by heeding the advice of Mr. Batiste and demonstrating to the world that American defense secretaries do hold themselves to the highest standards of personal accountability.

Lawrence J. Korb, an assistant secretary of defense during both Reagan administrations, and Peter Ogden work on national security issues at the Center for American Progress. This column was originally published in the Baltimore Sun on April 20, 2006.