In The Prince, Machiavelli tells the story of Remirro D’Orco, a viceroy whom Cesare Borgia put in charge of the conquered state of Romagna. Remirro was a brutal and effective governor. But when Cesare wished to distance himself from Remirro’s cruelty, he took decisive action: the townsfolk awoke one morning to find Remirro chopped in half in the city square. “The barbarity of this spectacle,” Machiavelli surmises, “caused the people to be at once satisfied and dismayed.”
About five hundred years later, the New York Times has argued in an editorial that Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld should resign, as atonement for the atrocious treatment of prisoners in American custody at Baghdad’s Abu Ghraib prison. The Times joined several Democratic lawmakers in calling for Rumsfeld’s job–and Rep. Charles Rangel went them one better, calling for his impeachment. None have yet called for Rumsfeld’s bisection, but the parallel to Remirro’s fate is clear.
Three arguments are being made for Rumsfeld’s ouster. The first is that he bungled the Iraq invasion by failing to plan adequately for the postwar period and not committing enough troops to the occupation. The jury is still out on this question; I tend to believe that no amount of troops is adequate to control the resupply and reinforcement of terrorists from Iran and Syria and that any force would be stretched thin. But it really has nothing to do with the situation at Abu Ghraib; the Times just wanted an excuse to mention it.
The second argument is that Rumsfeld bears “personal responsibility” for what happened at Abu Ghraib. Now, presumably those sober guardians of the public trust at the Times believe responsibility develops according to some sort of rule or precedent. So let us consider some other cases of government malfeasance to see if a pattern emerges about political responsibility and resignations.
No one has yet resigned because of the failure to find Iraq’s WMDs. No one has lost his job over the intelligence failures that led to 9/11. How about the Khobar Towers bombing, or the attack on the USS Cole? No American politician took responsibility for these failures.
Or, how about the incineration of eighty Branch Davidians in Waco, Texas, as a direct consequence of Janet Reno’s order to storm their compound? No, she weathered that–along with the Ruby Ridge scandal–and stayed with the Clinton administration into the second term. The first World Trade Center bombing yielded no resignations. Maybe someone high up should have been fired in some or all of these incidents, but that doesn’t seem to be the way American politics tends to assign responsibility.
What about cases in which someone did bite the bullet? Allen Dulles, the director of Central Intelligence who planned the Bay of Pigs invasion, was allowed to step down quietly after some period of time and avoided resigning publicly. In the Iran-Contra scandal, National Security Adviser John Poindexter took a dive for covering up illegal conduct, and was later indicted for conspiracy to defraud the United States government.
More recently, Les Aspin resigned honorably as President Clinton’s Secretary of Defense after Aspin refused to authorize the use of tanks to support a mission in Somalia. Tanks would be too obtrusive, Aspin concluded, and would alienate our allies in the United Nations. The results of his decision were 18 dead American soldiers, two of whom were dragged through the streets of Mogadishu in what has become known as the Black Hawk down incident. Aspin’s excessive deference to international opinion got soldiers killed, and cost him his job.
Abu Ghraib is an outrage and a tragedy, but it looks nothing like these precedents for resignation. Most importantly, there was no cover-up. Quite the opposite; the army had been investigating the matter for weeks before the press ran the story. Furthermore, Abu Ghraib was not a policy failure but a very local, site-specific failure of discipline. It did not flow directly from a decision Rumsfeld made, as with Dulles and Aspin.
In fact, the connection between the abuse of prisoners and Rumsfeld’s leadership is so attenuated as to be farcical. It’s like calling for Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta’s resignation because the baggage handlers at Denver stole your golf clubs. One hopes Rumsfeld had nothing at all to do with the day-to-day running of Abu Ghraib: The chief of the world’s finest fighting force ought to have bigger things on his mind than prison administration. Some Iraqis died in U.S. custody, and their deaths are being investigated. Unless it emerges that Rumsfeld killed them, the claims for his responsibility for the faults of Abu Ghraib lack substance.
The third argument for Rumsfeld’s resignation is prudential: that regardless of Rumsfeld’s culpability, he should be jettisoned like Remirro was, as a sop to world opinion. American success in Iraq, the Times asserts with a straight face, is far more important than one man’s career. “The world is waiting now for a sign that President Bush understands the seriousness of what has happened…Mr. Bush should start showing the state of his own heart by demanding the resignation of his secretary of defense.”
Let the world wait. The notion that we should fire a competent and popular official on trumped-up charges to placate Brussels’s or Khartoum’s moral outrage is not only craven, it’s useless. This is not the ruthless prudence of Machiavelli, but rather the dubious prudence of Aspin, who gave up the sure protection of armor in deference to native and U.N. goodwill. His prudential weakness only emboldened retaliation against American troops.
President Bush rightly called the abuse at Abu Ghraib a “stain on our country’s honor.” Redoubling our commitment to establishing a free and peaceful Iraq can wash that stain away. Jailing the sadists who abused the prisoners, and the commanders who failed to supervise them will help. The elimination of murderers such as Abu al-Zarqawi and Moqtada Al-Sadr will probably help more, by reminding the world that unlike in the aftermath Mogadishu, our resolve remains unshaken. But retaliating against Donald Rumsfeld will serve little purpose except to distract us from the relentless pursuit of the war on terror.
–Clinton W. Taylor is a lawyer and a Ph.D. student in political science at Stanford.