December 10, 2004

Rummy's Good Lessons for All Reactions

Justin Katz

I first heard about the Rumsfeld and the Tough Question episode when I tuned in to local morning talk radio host Steve Kass. The audio clip that he played for the audience (and on which he may have based his reaction) consisted only of the soldier's question and the offending sentence of Donald Rumsfeld's response, without any sort of auditory ellipsis. Even so, I thought Kass's vehemence that Rumsfled ought to resign a little extreme, and most of the callers whom I heard seemed to be speaking with more general complaints.

When I returned home, I discovered that Fox News was giving a couple of the preceding sentences in its clip, but nowhere near the full response:

I talked to the General coming out here about the pace at which the vehicles are being armored. They have been brought from all over the world, wherever they're not needed, to a place here where they are needed. I'm told that they are being — the Army is — I think it's something like 400 a month are being done. And it's essentially a matter of physics. It isn't a matter of money. It isn't a matter on the part of the Army of desire. It's a matter of production and capability of doing it.

As you know, you go to war with the Army you have. They're not the Army you might want or wish to have at a later time. Since the Iraq conflict began, the Army has been pressing ahead to produce the armor necessary at a rate that they believe — it's a greatly expanded rate from what existed previously, but a rate that they believe is the rate that is all that can be accomplished at this moment.

I can assure you that General Schoomaker and the leadership in the Army and certainly General Whitcomb are sensitive to the fact that not every vehicle has the degree of armor that would be desirable for it to have, but that they're working at it at a good clip. It's interesting, I've talked a great deal about this with a team of people who've been working on it hard at the Pentagon. And if you think about it, you can have all the armor in the world on a tank and a tank can be blown up. And you can have an up-armored humvee and it can be blown up. And you can go down and, the vehicle, the goal we have is to have as many of those vehicles as is humanly possible with the appropriate level of armor available for the troops. And that is what the Army has been working on.

One can argue that his choice of words for that one short sentence was poor — especially given the media wailing that it enabled. But Rumsfeld was clearly following a public speaking template:

  1. Acknowledge being aware of the problem.
  2. Summarize the specific difficulties.
  3. Allude to the larger principle guiding the variety of actions.
  4. Put the problem in as soft a light as possible.
  5. But reassert that it is a problem, and one that is being addressed.

There are two lessons from this perspective that are more broadly applicable to the ways in which we react to this sort of controversy. The first is that we often know less about the context than we believe we do. In this case, that includes not only the full paragraph of the response that Kass's station cut from its clip, but also the information that a reporter was behind the scenes orchestrating the incident (and probably had much to do with the way the question was phrased).

The second consideration highlighted in this controversy is a realistic assessment of what even the top guy can accomplish and how he ought to explain the circumstances. To demand Rumsfeld's resignation, it seems to me, one must believe that this one sentences proves that his handling of the armor situation places it unreasonably low in the tangle of issues with which he must deal. In other words, one must believe that the financial and geopolitical considerations that affect his decisions are laughably inadequate to justify his judgment that the current rate of Humvee armor upgrades is acceptable. That's a tough argument to make in a war with relatively low casualties and the lowest fatality rate ever.

The consideration consequently becomes how Rumsfeld expressed the difficulties, and I'd suggest that there are a great many ways for a Secretary of Defense to answer — or avoid truly answering — such questions that would be less desirable. For instance, he could have simply slipped past the question with evasive assurances and moved on. Or he could have just avoided putting himself in that situation altogether. (Further discussion along these lines here.)

As for Rummy's relationship with the troops, I note that by the time he moved on to the next question, he appears to have re-won them over:

The other day, after there was a big threat alert in Washington, D.C. in connection with the elections, as I recall, I looked outside the Pentagon and there were six or eight up-armored humvees. They’re not there anymore. [Cheers] [Applause] They’re en route out here, I can assure you.