Incompetence, not crassness, is the resigning matter

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The Independent Online

Among Donald Rumsfeld's many sins of omission and commission, his use of a machine to sign letters of condolence to the families of soldiers killed in Iraq may not be the most heinous. It is, of course, a public relations catastrophe, as Mr Rumsfeld appreciates. His immediate and very public promise to sign all such letters personally from now on shows a keen awareness of the damage done. Some 1,300 signatures over 20 months - the time that the US has been engaged in Iraq - would hardly have required the defence secretary to notch up multiple hours of overtime.

Among Donald Rumsfeld's many sins of omission and commission, his use of a machine to sign letters of condolence to the families of soldiers killed in Iraq may not be the most heinous. It is, of course, a public relations catastrophe, as Mr Rumsfeld appreciates. His immediate and very public promise to sign all such letters personally from now on shows a keen awareness of the damage done. Some 1,300 signatures over 20 months - the time that the US has been engaged in Iraq - would hardly have required the defence secretary to notch up multiple hours of overtime.

What makes the disclosure so threatening to Mr Rumsfeld, however, is that it sums up so much that has been wrong with his tenure at the Pentagon. When he first became Defence Secretary, his bluff outspokenness was seen as an asset. His dry humour and high-handedness on television made him a US media star - until the war in Iraq started to diverge from the desired script. His much-vaunted frankness was then exposed for what it was: complacency, insensitivity and arrogance, all laced with a large quotient of incompetence.

His recent response to combat troops complaining of inadequate equipment - that it was essentially the military, not the politicians, that were at fault - was an outrage. Who was it but Mr Rumsfeld who had ridden roughshod over the top brass and gambled on a lighter, nimbler army to conquer Iraq? Now that the consequences of this cardinal error are plain, he is simply passing the buck down the ranks. As he did with the proven "fixing" of US air force contracts in favour of Boeing. As he did with the inflated contracts for Halliburton subsidiaries in Iraq. As he did with the unforgivable abuses at Abu Ghraib.

Any one of these failures would have been ample cause for the Defence Secretary to have offered his resignation and for the President to have accepted it. Instead, Mr Bush reappointed him and still praises him lavishly. Mr Rumsfeld is a liability to the standing of the Pentagon, a liability to the reputation of the US abroad and a liability to US troops in the field. That he is prepared to bluster on and that Mr Bush encourages him is an indictment of both men and their judgement.

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