Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Rumsfeld and the Generals

Entertainment Versus News

I logged on to the internet this morning and went through the headlines, as is my habit, and I could not find anything worth writing about. Every headline was really a local story about some local crime or event that became a national story only because it involved a Hollywood starlet, young blonde woman, athlete, child, or kitten.

Really? Nothing important is happening in the world or in the nation that might affect the whole population?

I have this prejudice about what I call news. Something is not news unless it is something that gives me a reason to change how I do things, or about which my input might be important. If a new provision in the tax code affects me, then that is news, because I will have to change how I do things to conform to the law. If there is a dispute on some issue of national importance, I would like to know the issue so that I can render an informed judgment, and try to direct some effort to promoting that decision.

This morning's news offered nothing of substance.

Of course, no objection can be raised against reading things for their entertainment value. A problem arises when entertainment entirely replaces substance, as it seems to have been doing in the past week.

Rumsfeld and the Generals

The headlines did contain the trailing elements of a story that does qualify as news. A number of former generals has stepped forward to suggest that the President replace Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld.

However, I fear that, no matter how much I read up on these issues, I will never be qualified to give an informed decision. I simply will not be given access to the types of information that I will need in order to determine if these Generals are raising legitimate complaints. For all I know, they could be spoiled brats who are whining about the fact that the Secretary of Defense did not go through sufficient effort to stroke their egos – because, I can well imagine, generals have very large egos.

I see this as a problem to writing an informed opinion on the matter. I have read others who had no problem siding with the generals against Rumsfeld.

I get the impression -- and, I admit, this is only an impression -- that these claims are being made by partisan writers who judge truth or fiction by whether a story can benefit the party. They hear former Generals speaking up against the Bush Administration. They simply assume that anybody who speaks against the Bush Administration must be telling the truth, and take any critic's word on face value.

To me, this sounds too much like cherry-picking the data.

Remember how the Bush Administration assumed that anybody who had anything bad to say about Saddam Hussein must be right. This is the same process, except with the Bush Administration as the target rather than the Saddam Hussein regime.

Criticizing Rumsfeld

I am not saying that Rumsfeld is beyond criticism. I can make a good case for dismissing Rumsfeld without mentioning the testimony of these generals.

Let us assume that the director of NASA was given a project crucial to well-being of the country. NASA’s director had agreed, and indeed promoted, estimates that the project would cost less than $100 billion. The payoff to the people of the United States would be huge (e.g., peace in the Middle East and a population of Iraq who worshipped us as the greatest, most humanitarian people ever to exist, plus direct access to cheap oil in the hands of a friendly and adoring nation).

Three years later, the project had cost nearly $300 billion. There was no sign that the hemorrhage of taxpayer dollars will come to an end. The project has also cost the lives of nearly 2,400 Americans, with 17,500 wounded. The lost also includes the damage done to the lives, health, liberty, and property of other countries.

Now, the project is anticipated to cost over $1 trillion. There is no way to count how many people will be maimed and killed before the project comes to an end, and the project might not even be successful. The cost of the project is hindering the country’s ability to respond to other emergencies. Yet, the project has been conducted in such a way that the cost of ending it might even be higher than the cost of continuing it. At least, the Administration is intent on trying to convince the people that, no matter how much the project costs to complete, the cost of dropping it would be higher.

Furthermore, to add to the analogy, we can assume that this hypothetical NASA project is plagued by corruption. Kickbacks and bribes are business as usual. This is a weak moral analogy to the torture and abuse that has become a part of the campaign in Iraq. The Administrator sets the moral and cultural tone of the agency. If we find corruption and abuse rampant in the system, we must hold the administrator accountable for the culture he has fostered.

Now, whoever managed this type of project would be . . . should be . . . ripe for an unfavorable job performance review. We do not need the testimony of generals to tell us that there is a problem here. The case is simple. “Mr. Rumsfeld. You were given a job to do with this budget and this timeline. You said that the budget and the timeline were reasonable. Your project is now so massively over-budget and so massively behind schedule that we have good reason to question your competence as a manager. We think that it is time to give this project to somebody else.”

So, I am not questioning the testimony of these generals because I have a soft spot for Rumsfeld and, in the style of a political partisan, I am willing to defend him at all costs. Rather, I am simply somebody who wants to actually base my conclusions on the evidence, rather than one who accepts or rejects evidence on whether it supports a desired conclusion.

Responsible Decision Making

As I said at the start, I do not have, nor will I ever have, enough information about the inner workings of the Pentagon to make an informed assessment as to the merits of these generals’ claims.

With so many generals coming forward, I may not think it is reasonable to draw an informed conclusion myself. However, I do think that they provide justification for calling for an investigation. If I was running a company, and seven mid-level managers quit while complaining about one of the Senior Vice Presidents of the company, I would consider it a dereliction of duty (a charge fit to be discussed in an ethics blog) to casually brush those accusations aside.

The job needs to be given over to people who, unlike me, and unlike a list of pundits who feel qualified to judge the issue, actually have access to the types of information they need to make an informed decision. They definitely have to be non-partisan, and have an overriding concern for the welfare of the troops and the success of the project.

Let them make the decision to keep this manager, or to find a new one.

Bush answered the challenge by saying, “But I'm the decider, and I decide what is best. And what's best is for Don Rumsfeld to remain as the secretary of defense.”

That is not a morally responsible position to take. It is an arrogant and presumptuous position to take.

White House "Shake Up"

In related news, today we heard of a “shakeup” of the White House staff. New Chief of staff Joshua B. Bolten has been suggesting that there will be some personnel changes.

We have already been told that this shakeup does not include Rumsfeld. Instead, today, we hear that Press Secretary Scott McClellan is stepping down. This has all of the sense of a speaker, proposing poorly considered ideas based on fantasy and wishful thinking can make those ideas sound better if they switch to a different microphone. They have not yet recognized that the problem is with the message, not with the quality of the equipment used to tell it.


Disenchanted Dave said...

The criticism of Rumsfeld is not new, it's not partisan, and it's totally justified. Gregory Djrejian explains why much better than I could. Pay special attention to the 2004 Washington Post article he cites. If that doesn't convince you, consider this: Rumsfeld has been instrumental in allowing torture to flourish in the military, and he knows it--he offered to resign over Abu Ghraib. I haven't read much from your blog, but I'm assuming that any ethicist would find that appalling.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

Thank you for reminding me.

There was a paragraph that I wanted to add on that topic that I had thought about earlier, and subsequently forgot. I have edited the post to add that paragraph.

Yes, the administrator of any organization is morally responsible for the culture he creates. A little bit of torture and abuse can be blamed on the troops. A systematic culture of abuse and torture rests with those in charge.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

I'm afraid that what did or would have happened under previous administrations is still a poor measure of quality. It may be the case that the "right thing to do" is that which would have generated this type of reaction whenever it was done. The reason we did not see this type of reaction in the past is because the right thing was not done.

For example, look at the number of high-ranking military leaders with years of distinguished service quit the military in 1860 to fight against the very army they once lead. The willingness of a large number high-ranking officials to quit in a dispute is not proof -- it is not even evidence -- that they are right.

Now, I know that the Republican leadership is made up of hypocrites who much prefer positions of convenience over positions of principle.

I recently came across this set of quotes from Republican leaders claiming that Clinton was overstepping constitutional limits.

"I will have no part in the creation of a constitutional double-standard to benefit the president," Sen. Bill Frist.

"No man is above the law, and no man is below the law -- that's the principle that we all hold very dear in this country," Rep. Tom DeLay

"The rule of law protects you and it protects me from the midnight fire on our roof or the 3 a.m. knock on our door," Rep. Henry Hyde.

I know full well how the Republicans would have used the protest of six generals against a Clinton appointee.

However, clearly, the fact that the Republicans would handle something a particular way is not proof that it ought to be handled that way.

Anonymous said...

I am with you 100% on the news. Politically biased reporting that is intended to appeal primarily to white conservative Christians is not news. The pontifications of right-wing spittle-spewers are not news. Katie Holmes' baby is not news. Developments in the Natalee Holloway disappearance are not news.

I also agree with you that Bush is not going to replace Rumsfeld without a fight (a judicial fight, unfortunately, that would probably end in his favor). And as much as I loathe Rumsfeld, I know that my knowledge of the current state of affairs is too limited to offer any advice of substantial value.