Joe Conason's Journal

Donald Rumsfeld seems furious about attacks on the war plan in Iraq. But he never hesitated to criticize the Clinton administration's war in Kosovo.

Published April 2, 2003 5:30PM (EST)

That ruminating Rummy
The conclusion of this war was never in doubt -- although the causes and purposes still are -- and if we are fortunate the fighting will be over soon. (Perhaps the ending will be marked when that uniformed Iraqi flack in the beret, who keeps denying the obvious realities of the conflict, is arrested on camera.) The superiority of the American military, in motivation and valor as well as technology and training, is overwhelming. Professional officers cannot be faulted if hawks inside and outside the Pentagon promoted unrealistic "cakewalk" scenarios to draw the nation into war. Nor can they be blamed for the political errors and geopolitical fantasies of their civilian bosses.

Meanwhile, however, Donald Rumsfeld appears furious that anyone would dare to criticize the war plan. He thinks all those retired Army officers should just shut up because their dissension harms morale. So does the president, whose wartime demeanor is the subject of a rather disturbing profile in USA Today. But Rumsfeld didn't hesitate to offer his own criticisms, back when the Clinton administration and NATO, led by Gen. Wesley Clark (now a CNN commentator) were prosecuting what turned out to be a highly successful war in Kosovo.

Four years ago, he told CNN that he saw a "similar pattern" to the Vietnam debacle in that conflict. "There is always a risk in gradualism. It pacifies the hesitant and the tentative," whatever that meant.

Rumsfeld went on to use a phrase that has since become an unwelcome cliché: "What [gradualism] doesn't do is shock and awe and alter the calculations of the people you're dealing with." Rummy had still more to say, again on CNN, about Clinton's Kosovo strategy. "I think the goal is to complexify the problem for the enemy and not simplify it. And so when you begin to start ruling things out, like ground troops, or say we're only going to hit these targets and not those targets, the effect of that, it seems to me, is to make the problem for the other side much simpler." (Of course, our announced doctrine in Iraq today is to hit certain targets and avoid others, as it should be, but never mind.)

Like the critics who annoy him so much today, Rumsfeld didn't let his loyalty to the troops get in the way of his blasts at the White House. "Well, you know, when we're engaged in battle, I think you set aside how we drifted into it -- and there's plenty of blame for that on both sides of the Atlantic, in my view -- and I fully support the military effort," he said.

A few weeks later, Rumsfeld showed up on CNBC's "Hardball" to reiterate the same critique, while again insisting that with troops in battle he wanted "to be supportive." He even had some advice about working out a deal with Slobodan Milosevic:

"I'm not a fan of how we seem to have drifted into this, and I -- I worry about a gradualist approach ... I think it was a mistake to say that we would not use ground forces, because it simplifies the problem for Milosevic," he told Chris Matthews. "We -- we constantly say we're not gonna hit these targets, we are gonna hit those targets, we're gonna bring in Apaches or A-10s, but we're not gonna do it for two or four or six weeks. It seems to me that we ought to stop saying things to appease and placate our domestic political audiences and we are -- ought to start behaving in a way that suggests to Milosevic that it's his -- in his interest to -- to end this and stop the ethnic cleansing and to come to the negotiating table and -- and work out something rational."

As Rumsfeld continued to talk, what he said got worse. He suggested that the administration and NATO were playing "into [Milosevic's] hands" and might be bluffing. "I would not say that we've been effective in this campaign because it seems to me that the goal in life is to avoid crises, not to manage them once you're in them. And I feel that this was an avoidable -- probably an avoidable situation."
[11:50 a.m. PST, April 2, 2003]

For your regular Joe, bookmark this link. To send an e-mail, click here.

By Salon Staff

MORE FROM Salon Staff

Related Topics ------------------------------------------