Of course George W. Bush should fire Donald Rumsfeld--it's no longer an interesting debate. Even the Iraq war's most fervent supporters--people like John McCain--have denounced Rumsfeld's refusal to send enough troops to secure Baghdad in the aftermath of Saddam Hussein's fall. Rumsfeld's support is now concentrated among people less invested in the survival of Iraq than in the survival of Bush. And, even on the right, their numbers are dwindling fast.
The real question is whether, at this point, Rumsfeld's resignation would even make a difference. Pundits are like sports announcers: They have a professional interest in insisting that the game isn't over--that some dramatic, Hail Mary play could still turn the tide. But, no matter how hard they try, at some point fans turn off the television. And the American public is reaching that point on Iraq. According to a recent Gallup Poll, 57 percent of respondents said either that the United States can't win in Iraq or that it can but won't. Majorities want to withdraw at least some troops immediately. This fall, opinion in Congress will likely catch up to opinion in America. The newly elected Democrats--and there will be lots of them--will interpret their victories as mandates for rapid troop withdrawal. And, when they come to town, appropriating the money for a continued occupation will become much harder. At that point, it will hardly matter that Rumsfeld still has his job. He'll be a political undertaker.
In fact, if 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.
But reinforcing Bush's loyalty is a frightening intellectual parochialism and a near-pathological fear of appearing politically weak. And those less admirable qualities are blinding him to the fact that his give-no-quarter, stay-the-course, brand-the-critics-as-wusses strategy for selling the war has utterly failed. As The Washington Post's David Ignatius recently noted, Bush has been aggressively promoting his Iraq policy for months now. And the more speeches he gives, the more support drops. The public has turned off the television.
If there's any chance of getting them to take a second look (absent good news from Iraq, which seems depressingly unlikely), it starts with separating the debate over what we should do now in Iraq from the debate over whether we should have invaded in the first place. There are legitimate arguments for rapid withdrawal. But the withdrawal argument has also become a way for people to emphasize their opposition to the initial decision to go to war. Opposing continued occupation--like opposing the $87 billion supplemental in 2003--has become part of a larger effort to hold the Bush administration accountable for its disastrous mistakes.
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. Ideally, his or her appointment would coincide with the dismantling of Dick Cheney's shadow national security staff--thus demoting Cheney to the level of past vice presidents. And he or she should also be given the authority to replace John Bolton, which would be a useful olive branch to an enraged Congress, not to mention the rest of the planet. Finally, Rumsfeld's successor should be given the authority to reconsider all aspects of Iraq policy--as Clark Clifford did when he replaced Robert McNamara late in Lyndon Johnson's presidency. (That is not to say a successor need decide about Iraq what Clifford decided about Vietnam: that it is unwinnable. Only that Clifford brought intellectual openness to a White House grown agoraphobic, which is exactly what the Bush White House has become today).
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.
Such an appointment, of course, is radically unlikely. It would require Bush to break out of his intellectual bubble, to put his trust in his political adversaries, to very publicly eat crow. A more creative, more honest, more confident leader might do that. And America badly needs such a leader in these grim times. Unfortunately, it has George W. Bush--and likely Donald Rumsfeld, too.
This article originally ran in the May 1, 2006, issue of the magazine.