| US defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld (top). US secretary of state Colin Powel (bottom). Reuters
Washington, April 10: The political obituaries of Donald Rumsfeld penned in the opening days of the war were ripped up yesterday as the septuagenarian defence secretary became America’s hero of the hour again.
Having been accused of arrogantly dismissing the advice of his generals and failing to commit enough troops to do the job in Iraq, the Pentagon chief had a noticeable spring in his step as he approached the podium to address the press corps.
“Anyone seeing the face of the liberated Iraqis has to say this is a very good day,” he said, the irritation and impatience with journalists he had expressed recently now lifted.
In victory, he could afford to be magnanimous. “It is not a matter for me to be vindicated,” he said, proceeding to praise the “superb job” done by Gen. Tommy Franks and “the young folks who have marched to Baghdad”.
Comparing the day to the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Iron Curtain, he added with satisfaction: “Saddam Hussein is now taking his rightful place alongside Hitler, Stalin, Lenin and Ceausescu in the pantheon of failed brutal dictators.” Predictions of another Vietnam or Somalia had not come to pass. Saddam’s defeat had been achieved in under three weeks with only 81 confirmed American combat casualties and without weapons of mass destruction being used, oilfields being burned or a refugee crisis created.
If Rumsfeld was one of the big winners yesterday, then Colin Powell, the secretary of state, was a loser. Having been initially against the war, he then presided over a diplomatic debacle at the United Nations last month.
Hawkish critics of Powell have also said the war showed that his eponymous doctrine, that “overwhelming force” must be used in any conflict, was obsolete.
Rumsfeld’s devil-may-care confidence and open contempt for much established military orthodoxy were already legendary in Washington before the war. His steely demeanour, abrasive and often undiplomatic language coupled with his willingness to express pleasure at the deaths of enemy troops made many Europeans uncomfortable. But this, his backers said, was now irrelevant.
Caspar Weinberger, defence secretary under President Reagan, said: “He’s going to be harshly criticised by the leaders of France, Germany and Russia. But he doesn’t need to worry because their views have been largely discredited by the results.”
Rumsfeld had made many enemies in the Pentagon, particularly some generals, for his determination to pursue an aggressive transformation of the American military, replacing heavy armour with lighter, faster units and relying on technology rather than brute force.
The Afghan war was won primarily through the use of Special Forces working with indigenous fighters, while Saddam’s regime fell to a US force about half the size of that deployed for the 1991 Gulf war. Rumsfeld would have preferred to wage the Iraq war differently.
But diplomatic constraints dictated a gradual build-up of troops while political ones meant that Iraqi infrastructure had to be preserved and civilian casualties minimised at almost all costs. It remains to be seen whether Rumsfeld will be able to push through his transformation agenda in the teeth of opposition from the entrenched bureaucracy in the Pentagon and resistance on Capitol Hill to the scrapping of pet projects.
Vice-President Dick Cheney, who was himself ridiculed for suggesting American troops would be welcomed as liberators and the war would last weeks, said yesterday that the world had witnessed “one of the most extraordinary military campaigns ever conducted”.
He branded the doubters “retired military officers embedded in TV studios”. Pentagon officials were withering about the pronouncements of “armchair generals” who said Rumsfeld had not committed enough troops. “All these old guys were chattering away on TV because this was not the kind of war they fought,” said one aide.
Conservatives inside and out of the US government hope the Iraq war will signal to Damascus and Tehran that seeking weapons of mass destruction may be hazardous to their health.
“I hope we could change the regimes without military force and I would not contemplate using military force in those places,” said Kenneth Adelman, a former Pentagon aide and early advocate of toppling Iraqi President Saddam Hussein by force.
“The combination of totalitarianism and weapons of mass destruction is a deadly combination for the world,” he added. While some conservatives believe the example of Iraq could serve to undermine the governments of some of its nondemocratic neighbors, others simply hope it will dissuade them from seeking biological, chemical and nuclear weapons.