A Rumsfeld Resignation

Parliamentary governments are inherently more provisional than the presidential form under which the United States operates. Temporary changes in political fortunes can force elections, while presidents, save for “high crimes and misdemeanors” are permitted at least four years to attempt to implement their policies. The provisional nature of parliamentary governments is probably the reason that ministerial resignations for failures are more common under parliamentary systems. These resignations are more common even if the responsibility for failure is not directly attributable to a minister. Like the captain in command of ship, what ever happens, the minister takes responsibility.

There is, admittedly, a certain satisfaction and closure in a minister’s resignation. It conveys as sense of accountability, salutary in democratic governments. There is even statistical evidence accumulated by political scientists that suggests that the timely resignation of a minister can cauterize a political wound and even enhance the political fortunes of the minister’s party. Perhaps it is the inveterate American emphasis on individuality that makes it difficult to assign personal blame unless there are personal actions involved. Calls for resignation in the United States do not typically arise from a principled insistence upon absolute accountability, but rather from political oppurtunism. The calls for the resignation of Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld fall into this latter category.

Many Democrats, who want to maximize the political damage to the Bush Administration, are the same ones who were willing to overlook far more consequential decisions by Democratic cabinet members. Two cases come immediately to mind. In 1992, Attorney General Janet Reno specifically approved the assault on the Branch Davidians cult compound in Waco, Texas. The assault did not go as planned and 75 people died. In 1993, then General Colin Powel asked Secretary of Defense Les Aspin to grant the request of the US commander in Somalia for armored vehicles. Wishing to avoid a heavy presence, Aspin denied the requests. Partially as a consequence of this decision, 18 soldiers were killed in an ambush in Mogadishu.

Neither Reno nor Aspin willed those tragic outcomes. They erred in good faith. However, they were far more directly involved in the decisions that led to the disasters than Rumsfeld is to prisoner abuse, yet few Democrats asked for Reno’s or Aspin’s resignation. Republicans, of course, did, and Democrats reflexively defended Clinton’s cabinet members.

Democrats and Republicans playing political games is expected behavior, but today when the stakes in the War on Terror are so grave, we should expect more. We know that the higher echelons in the military initiated an investigation immediately as information about prisoner abuse worked up the chain of command. Investigations apportion responsibility. However, the anxiousness by some on the Left to bring down Rumsfeld and to indirectly suggest that the US military is engaged in systemic and inherent abuse is unwise and unbecoming.

This is the opportunity, the moment of imperfection, that those who wish ill on the US have waited for. With or without finding WMD, there can be no doubt that Coalition troops liberated Iraqis from a fascist regime. By the conventional measures of availability of food, electricity, water and sewage treatment, and the less conventional measure of freedom, Iraqis, as a whole, are far better off than they were a year ago. Security, of course, remains a primary concern. However, if the ethical distinction between Americans and Saddam’s regime can be blurred, the morality of American actions can be called into question. That is why in the Middle East, there has been far more press coverage of the abuses at Abu Ghraib than of the slashing of the throat of an American civilian by terrorists. The juxtaposition of American abuses coupled with the apology of American leaders stands in stark moral contrast to the actions of terrorists we fight, evil bullies who brag at the opportunity to slit American throats.

No one is suggesting that investigations into prisoner abuse should not proceed with due diligence or that there should be no press coverage. Nonetheless, an excessive and disproportionate focus on the prisoner abuse by the loyal opposition and saturation press coverage does not bring us closer to the truth. Indeed, it can distort truthful context in a way that may endanger American and Iraqi lives. The honest application of justice remains the only way to salvage American honor from the dishonor the Abu Ghraib prison. If the abuse at Abu Ghraib looks so bad, it is because Americans aspire to higher standards.

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