The lieutenant commander was almost done. He was about to finish putting in his 20 years, and then he would be gone. I had worked with him for a couple of years and always sensed that there was a story in his past -- that something had happened to derail his career. I had been told that he had graduated quite high in his class at the U.S. Naval Academy. He certainly was bright enough, although quite jaded. One day, I learned what happened. As the calls for Donald Rumsfeld's resignation have mounted, I've been thinking of the lieutenant commander's story.
As expected because of his high class ranking, this naval officer's career had been put on a fast track. He had received an early career command on a minesweeper. In keeping with the Navy tradition, the incoming commanding officer calls on the outgoing commander, who graciously provides a tour of the ship. Following the tour, any lingering questions are answered and the new captain signs for the ship. At that moment, it becomes his ship -- his responsibility. The old saying in the Navy is that a ship's captain is the closest America gets to a dictatorship. Rank may have its privileges, but it also has its accountability. The captain will be given credit or blame for whatever happens to his ship.
During the tour, below deck, several crates were observed. They effectively blocked a passageway. The outgoing skipper explained that the public works people would be there in the morning to remove the crates. With this assurance, our young lieutenant commander signed for the ship.
That very night, a fire broke out below deck. Two sailors died because they could not find their way around the crates. An inquiry was held, and the court held that our young aspiring officer was entirely responsible -- not the outgoing skipper who allowed the crates to be left in that passageway. The ship had been signed over. He bore no more responsibility. Our promising lieutenant commander's career was over. He would go no further and would retire at the earliest possible date. If you are in command, you are responsible; if anything goes wrong, it's your fault. In exchange, you have complete authority over the ship and crew. It isn't that motivation, process and protocol don't matter in the Navy; it's just that results trump all else. You can have the purest of motives, you can go by the book and honor the protocol, but if the results prove to be disastrous, you still have to go.
Bush and Rumsfeld fail to show any understanding of these distinctions. In this they are so very, well, American. When American leaders say that they "accept responsibility," they really mean that they are sorry for what happened and they promise to move the problem to the top of their in-baskets.
Except for Abraham Lincoln, who fired as many generals as he had to until he found one who could win, we have to look far and wide to find a chief executive who has actually demanded results. Arguably, Janet Reno should have tendered her resignation following the Waco debacle. George Tenet should have resigned following 9/11 (and if not then, surely after Bob Woodward's book came out). And now we come to Donald Rumsfeld.
Newsweek ran the headline, "Is Rumsfeld To Blame?" But they're missing the point. Instead, the headline should have read, "Has the Congress, the country and the world lost confidence in Rumsfeld?" Based on reaction to the prison torture scandal -- reaction that runs from Congress to our allies to the Arab world -- you would have to conclude that Rumsfeld's failure has reached the level of political disaster that calls for resignation.
Rumsfeld, through his own choosing, plays on an international stage. His foreign audience doesn't have to like him (and none do), but they have to respect him. Well, they have never liked him, but now they have concluded that he is arrogant and incompetent. At home, he has lost the confidence of key members of Congress -- people he must work with, if not answer to.
Last week The Economist broke with its usual understatement and called for Rumsfeld to resign. This publication has been echoed throughout the world, and by newspapers that have been supporters of the war since day one. The very supportive Australian, a Rupert Murdoch publication, writes that "Rumsfeld must go." Another supportive newspaper, the Scotsman, published in Edinburgh, calls for his resignation on the grounds that he has lost "the confidence of the country and the world." The Daily Telegraph chides Rumsfeld for staying one minute after he announced that if he thought he could no longer be effective, he would resign. And the Toronto Sun reluctantly concludes that this war is no longer about freedom, but about one man's agenda.
All the legalese that the White House now spins -- to the effect that a distinction exists between responsibility and accountability -- serves only to worsen the situation. For certain, the president misses the gravity of all this. Bush remains glued to loyalty as his single criterion for retention. He called Rumsfeld a superb Secretary of Defense. But then he also called Ariel Sharon a man of peace, so you have to consider the source. What we do know is that when you work for Bush, you can fail miserably -- but if you're also loyal, you stay. Just ask George Tenet. Meanwhile, you can be right, but if you're disloyal, you go. Consult former Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill on that score.
Just as the Navy is bigger than one young officer, however brilliant, the country is bigger than one man. Rumsfeld should resign not because he is necessarily to blame, but because it's the decent thing to do. That's what genuine loyalty is.
Publication date: 05/20/04