Chait’s Oswald Analogy

by Victor Davis Hanson

I don’t know Jonathan Chait and have read little that he has written, except for a reprehensible article entitled “The Case for Bush Hatred,” which began: “I hate President George W. Bush. There, I said it. I think his policies rank him among the worst presidents in U.S. history. And, while I’m tempted to leave it at that, the truth is that I hate him for less substantive reasons, too.” The article went on to list several reasons to hate the president of the United States, including the ways that he supposedly walked and talked. As Chait mused, “And, while most people who meet Bush claim to like him, I suspect that, if I got to know him personally, I would hate him even more.”

Apparently, Chait has a propensity for such silliness: Recently he offered this commentary about a recent review that I authored of Donald Rumsfeld’s memoir Known and Unknown for City Journal:

Victor Davis Hanson reviews Donald Rumsfeld’s book:

A magnanimous Donald Rumsfeld seems determined to give away most of the money he made during a hectic three decades in private enterprise to a variety of admirable causes (he is donating all the profits from his memoir to veterans’ charities). He is as candid and unapologetic in retirement as he was in government and corporate service. “Take away the insurgency in Iraq,” an acquaintance once told me, “and Donald Rumsfeld would have been a sort of icon of postwar America.”

Right, if you imagine that the most important thing he did was a huge success rather than a huge failure, then he’s be remember [sic] as a huge success. Not as a huge failure. Likewise, if Lee Harvey Oswald had killed someone who was about to assassinate President Kennedy, rather than assassinating President Kennedy himself, he’d go down in history as a hero.

Four points. One, for Chait, the most natural point of comparison (“likewise”) to Donald Rumsfeld is apparently the assassin Lee Harvey Oswald, which suggests that the “Bush hatred” article was perhaps not aberrant. Second, I was quoting what I termed an “obvious” assessment from an acquaintance, as an example of a widely held view. Third, as the review showed (and as Chait ignored), Donald Rumsfeld did enjoy success over both his tenures at the Pentagon, from his efforts to ensure the selection of the Abrams tank to the cancellation of the Crusader artillery platform, to cost controls and reformulating military organization. Finally, Chait in his excerpt conveniently left off my own response to my acquaintance’s observation. The next two, and very last, lines of the review are:

That might now seem obvious, but we don’t yet have the full history — or know the ultimate consequences — of the Iraq War. With Rumsfeld’s memoir, we are getting closer.

In other words, Chait fails to grasp the obvious point of the anecdote: that everyone assumes Rumsfeld had a great career until Iraq, and yet we still don’t know the full story of, or enjoy enough distance from, what happened in Iraq between 2006 and 2008 to offer a comprehensive or definitive assessment — especially since others (e.g., Condoleezza Rice, David Petraeus, Dick Cheney, Ryan Crocker, officers in the field, Iraqi officials, etc.) have not all weighed in yet. Nor do we know yet all the reasons why the surge worked when it did (e.g., a change in tactics, additional manpower, demonstration of resolve, cumulative attrition of insurgents, sudden and unexpected allegiance of Iraqis in Anbar province, etc.).

The review was not a whitewash, but tried to suggest inter alia that historical assessments of contemporary wars are difficult, they take time, and they must factor in some recognition that mistakes and lapses are the stuff of every conflict, success going to the side that more rapidly and thoroughly corrects those inevitable errors. All that is lost in Chait’s shallow and somewhat repulsive Oswald analogy.