Washington — If you mention Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld in Washington these days, Democrats roll their eyes and Republicans examine their feet. He is seen as querulous, garrulous and the author of the great mistakes of the Iraq war.
He is almost, but not quite, a tragic figure. First, Rumsfeld has a resume that dwarfs those of the rest of the Cabinet. He is a public servant of the old school - a Princeton graduate, a naval aviator and flight instructor, a four-term congressman in his 30s, and a critical player in the administrations of four presidents. He has been ambassador to NATO and has shaken the hand of Iraq's Saddam Hussein. In his first tour in the Pentagon, Rumsfeld was the youngest-ever secretary of defense.
As a public servant, his record is Churchillian. But Churchill failed in the middle of his career, during World War I. Rumsfeld is failing at the end of his career, destined to be remembered as the man who called the wrong shots in Iraq, and would brook no criticism or kindly advice.
It was Rumsfeld who insisted at the outset of the war that the mission could be accomplished with an inadequate ground force. It was Rumsfeld who pushed ahead and supported the destruction of Iraqi institutions because they were controlled by members of the Ba'athist Party, who had served Saddam.
Rumsfeld is a man devoid of doubt; certain, relentless and brave, as he proved in the Pentagon on Sept. 11, 2001. Many have noted that the clues to the makeup of Rumsfeld were to be found in his days as a high school and college wrestler. Those who knew him at that time said he was never the best, but he was relentless. One of them said, "He kept on coming." And that is the Rumsfeld way.
Now, with opprobrium heaped on him in Congress and the media, Rumsfeld keeps on coming, unable to recognize failed strategy or to contemplate wholesale failure. He was of that generation informed by only one historical political event: Munich.
It was the political heritage of his generation to believe that accommodation equaled appeasement. Yet, British statesmen had to abandon the lessons they learned from Hitler in order to engineer an orderly withdrawal from empire.
French, Belgian and Portuguese statesmen failed to understand that the lessons of 1938 did not carry over into the 1960s. And in the Congo, Angola, Mozambique and Algeria, they learned a different lesson.
The British understood that you had to sit down and talk to the people who had been trying to kill you; that when imperial imperative was no longer valid, political solutions had to be sought.
Rumsfeld, not having to deal with post-colonial challenges, is not a man of realpolitik. Neither is his boss, President Bush. They are both men who see Munich as the overriding political lesson, even when that lesson contrasts with the very different realities of today.
In the end Rumsfeld is a man of enormous gifts, incontrovertible achievements, and a man who has stayed too long at the Pentagon helm. It is not in his character to recognize his limitations or the limitations of his strategies.
Old men do not go gently, they have to be sent. Corporations send them, but in politics and public service they often stay too long because of public sentiment, their own determination and, alas, their own egos. Adm. Hyman Rickover stayed too long, as did J. Edgar Hoover.
And Winston Churchill stayed too long. It is only now emerging what awful mistakes were made in the second Churchill administration in the 1950s. The great wartime leader was exhausted, had lost some of his faculties and did not seem to care.
Had he cared, he would have nipped in the bud growing trade union power and unfettered colonial immigration. In some way Churchill was responsible for Britain's two greatest postwar problems. Had he been alert to the consequences of mass immigration from Pakistan, for example, Britain would not now be facing the problem posed by nearly 2 million unassimilated Muslim immigrants.
Rumsfeld has not failed the president. But the president has failed Rumsfeld. He should have removed him long before now.