By Marie Cocco
The fledgling congressional movement to strip power from Rumsfeld and shift it to the U.S. generals in Iraq is nothing more than a ploy started by a politician afraid of losing his job.
WASHINGTON—Politicians say the darndest things. They’re most cynically amusing—or distressingly annoying—when their comfortable seats are in jeopardy and they are hogtied by political circumstances they can’t control.
So it is that we have the latest, most convoluted—most comical—way to try to get rid of Donald Rumsfeld: Cut the guy out of the action.
Republicans on Capitol Hill have effectively blocked Democrats from staging a true “no confidence’’ vote against the petulant defense secretary. The dysfunctionally stubborn President Bush wouldn’t think of throwing overboard a member of his war Cabinet who cooked up and executed so many of the mistakes that have brought us a gruesome countdown to civil war in Iraq and a return of the Taliban to Afghanistan. For Bush to dump Rumsfeld, the president would have to be convinced that only an October surprise of such embarrassing magnitude might convince voters to keep Republicans in charge of everything.
Short of a presidential firing or other dramatic manipulation (9/11 pageantry doesn’t count, because the public will have changed the channel by November), Republicans are saddled with Bush’s unpopular and unwon wars. So they must find some way to save their skins.
And that brings us to the ingenious gambit by Rep. Curt Weldon (R-Pa.), a veteran congressman in an unexpectedly tough fight to hang on to his district in the southern suburbs of Philadelphia. Weldon is trying to get his House colleagues to support a nonbinding resolution—still only a draft—that would give sole authority on withdrawing American troops from Iraq to the generals in the field. It is, he says, an effort to get some long-awaited “benchmarks’’ for success (a buzzword first popularized in the Iraq war debate by the alleged “defeatist’’ Democrats)—and let the generals decide when they’ve been met.
“The decision to bring the troops home will not be made by Donald Rumsfeld,’’ Weldon said in an MSNBC interview on Friday. Nor, he added helpfully, would Dick Cheney be in charge.
That leaves the decider in chief watching from the Oval Office as the generals take over. Some have pointed out, correctly, that the Constitution gives the president sole power to command the armed forces precisely because the founders wanted a nation in which the elected civilian leadership—not a king or, heavens knows, the military—has this authority. But since the resolution would be nonbinding, it certainly isn’t going to provoke a constitutional crisis.
The Weldon effort should be seen for what it is: a political maneuver by a politician who’s worried about losing his seat—but who quivers, still, at the thought of directly taking on his president and his party’s leadership. Still, Weldon gives us a useful way to assess just how boxed in we are by the bloody mess the Bush administration has created, and how the whole nation is bound by the president’s rigid adherence to loyalty in the face of failure.
In a parliamentary system, the Bush government would long ago have faced a no-confidence vote, and probably been toppled by it. British Prime Minister Tony Blair is stepping down next year and was forced to make the announcement prematurely because he’s lost the support of his own Labor Party.
The American founders instead set up checks and balances to constrain presidential power. Nowhere in this scheme does an independent military have an equal role with Congress or the judiciary. Gen. Douglas MacArthur, after all, was not free to expand the Korean conflict into China.
The checking and balancing in our system must be done by people such as Weldon—and this, tragically, hasn’t been done for the past four years. Weldon, the second-ranking Republican on the House Armed Services Committee, had ample opportunity to make known his dissatisfaction with Rumsfeld. Though the Pentagon chief is most closely associated with the debacle in Iraq, the deterioration of much of Afghanistan into a lawless frontier with resurgent terrorism can be laid at Rumsfeld’s door, too.
The public can’t fire the defense secretary; only the president can. We could have fired the president in 2004 and instead rehired him. Only lawmakers like Weldon now stand to be dumped because of their association with Bush and his wars.
It may well be unfair to single out any lawmaker, Democrat or Republican, for supporting presidential folly. But Weldon, whose district includes a fair number of blue-collar manufacturing towns, surely knows this truism: Layoffs hit the shop floor first.
Marie Cocco’s e-mail address is mariecocco(at symbol)washpost.com.