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Nudge Doubt Into the Light

October 24, 2003

By 1967, Defense Secretary Robert S. McNamara believed that the United States would not win in Vietnam, yet he doubted in silence. Publicly he proclaimed a belief in ultimate victory. The war lasted eight more years and cost tens of thousands more American and Vietnamese lives. Only in 1995 did McNamara admit that his public certitude was a veneer, that architects of the war policy "were wrong, terribly wrong."

Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld also publicly extols successes in the war on terrorism and the Afghanistan and Iraq campaigns. He cites Al Qaeda fighters captured or killed, terrorist assets seized and the ouster of Saddam Hussein and the Taliban. Although he has periodically said the war on terror will be long, he has not been as blunt as we now learn he was in private.

In a memo to his top aides, leaked to USA Today, Rumsfeld predicted that the campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq were likely to be victorious but would require "a long, hard slog." The memo talks of "mixed results with Al Qaeda" and "reasonable progress" in capturing or killing leading figures in Hussein's regime. Rumsfeld admits "somewhat slower progress" in capturing Taliban leaders. He asks whether "a new institution" may be required to fight terror and wonders whether radical Islamic clerics and their schools are recruiting and training more terrorists than the United States can stop.

Those questions should not be asked exclusively inside the Pentagon. Many government agencies need to wonder whether they are using the right tactics. Battling suicide bombers is fundamentally different from fending off an army advancing on a defined front, but both battles require gathering intelligence, disrupting enemy finances and guarding the nation's borders. That necessitates joint planning among the departments of State, Defense, Treasury and Homeland Security. That kind of interagency planning should have been done for postwar Iraq as well, rather than leaving the job to the Pentagon until President Bush this month put his national security advisor, Condoleezza Rice, in charge of such coordination.

Rice's Iraq Stabilization Group includes a public relations component to sell Iraq to the world as a success story. This week the Washington Post reported the Pentagon was enforcing a ban on coverage of the arrival at U.S. bases of coffins of soldiers killed in Iraq, another attempt to staunch bad news.

Rumsfeld's memo contrasts sharply with not only the new PR scheme but his own upbeat public comments. Whoever decided to make the memo public deserves thanks. Rumsfeld's plain speaking about his doubts should be part of a larger public discussion.

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