Mistakes are made


Wartime missteps should be measured against the gauge of perspective.

When Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld testified before Congress about abuses at Abu Ghraib prison, his inquisitors sought answers to questions of responsibility and accountability. His reply to them did not mince words. "As Secretary of Defense, I am accountable for [these events] and I take full responsibility."

Rumsfeld's assertion, followed closely by President George W. Bush's Pentagon visit and vote of confidence, perplexed many. Rumsfeld's detractors, most notably the war's domestic opponents, did not wait for explanations and instead used the prison abuse issue to intensify their calls for his resignation. To some, Abu Ghraib rounded out a list of missteps that, stoked with public loathing over the prison scandal, made their call for his resignation actionable.


Let's face it. If Americans sacked public officials after any tragic, scandalous or otherwise disagreeable wartime event - or even after a series of them - the United States would be paralyzed. People would not seek public office and government would cease to function. Instead, Americans intuitively understand the limits of responsibility and accountability for public officials.

Perhaps that explains the absence of a notable precedent in the United States for removal or forced resignation of cabinet members during wartime. Even Robert McNamara served seven years under two presidents during the Vietnam War before Lyndon Johnson pressured him to resign. Perspective is important.

Americans have kept their perspective. In one recent poll, seven of 10 Americans agree that the Abu Ghraib abuses are a "big deal," yet by a 2-1 margin, they reject the idea of ousting Rumsfeld. In other words, Americans today, like their predecessors, understand that we are "at war."


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