Peter Beinart [$] has an interesting piece reflecting on the “fire Rumsfeld” controversy in TNR. This much I think is right:
[I]f you think there is no hope in Iraq, it’s better that Bush not fire Rumsfeld. That way, Bush supporters won’t be able to pawn off blame on people who took over too late to do any good. Imagine, for instance, if John Kerry had won in 2004. It’s unlikely Iraq would be any better today than it is now, but it is very likely that Republicans would be blaming Kerry for the mess. Keeping Rumsfeld has the virtue of clarity. Sending him off to his New Mexico estate–with a “thanks-for-a-great-career” pat on the back, if not a presidential medal of freedom (L. Paul Bremer and George Tenet both have them)–would almost be too kind. Simply serving as secretary of defense in the ugly days to come might be the worst punishment of all.
But if you do think there’s hope for Iraq, Rumsfeld must be fired immediately. And, since Bush presumably still does, it is amazing that he can’t see the political logic staring him in the face. Bush prides himself on his loyalty. And, in certain circumstances, it is indeed admirable. One of Bush’s finest moments came after he was walloped in the 2000 New Hampshire primary by John McCain, when he assembled his top advisers in a room and told them that he took all the blame, and no one would be fired. If Kerry or Al Gore had shown that kind of loyalty to the people who ran their campaigns, they might have gotten some in return–and one or both might have become president.
His suggestion for a successor, though, strikes me as a bad one:
The best way to disentangle the two debates would be to replace Rumsfeld with someone who opposed the war to begin with. Bush would have to invest that person with tremendous power. […] My nominee would be Brent Scowcroft. I’m not a big fan of his rather amoral brand of realism. But, in Iraq today, it hardly matters. Even if Scowcroft wanted to put a pliant dictator in charge of Iraq, at this point, he couldn’t. And he would bring key assets to the job. As a retired lieutenant general who also served as national security adviser, he is well-positioned to repair the civil-military gulf that Rumsfeld has created. And, as a vocal war critic from the very beginning, he might win a serious hearing on Capitol Hill and from the American people. If he came out for rapid withdrawal, this goodwill would hardly be necessary; he would be running with the wind. But, if he determined that the United States should stay for a couple more years–that doing so offers at least the fleeting hope that Iraq’s center can hold–he might prove able to bring Congress along. He might convincingly tell the American people what Rumsfeld, and Bush himself, never credibly could: that we’re all in this Iraq mess together.
I like Scowcroft and would have been pleased with him as the choice in 2000. But, if Bush were to replace Rumsfeld with someone who has been vocally critical of his administration, Scowcroft is an uninspired choice. Much smarter would be a truly bold move across the aisle. A guy named Joe comes to mind. Actually, two of them: Biden and Lieberman.
Biden presumably has his heart set on another presidential bid. Still, it would be hard for him to turn down the SECDEF job after having been such a vocal critic of Rumsfeld’s competence. And, in his heart of hearts, Biden has to know that his chances of being president are slim. Lieberman might not be quite as dramatic a move, given the antipathy he has generated among the netroots. Still, ordinary Democrats still like him and most Republicans and middle-of-the-roaders respect him.
Such a move would not only be substantive, shaking up the leadership of the war effort, but would give Bush as close to a fresh start as he’ll be able to get at this point. It would be an admission that he has made some mistakes and that he needs support from both sides in achieving success in Iraq. It might actually give him that support, for a short time at least.
Update: The piece is now subscribers only, which was not the case when I initially posted. I know this because I am not a subscriber!
Also, I should clarify the above: As regular readers know, I am not in the “fire Rumsfeld” camp. The “This much I think is right” above refers to the intellectual reasoning of those two paragraphs, namely that it makes sense only to fire Rumsfeld if one believes that doing so will positively effect the outcome of the war.