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MAY 23, 2005

Notebook

FOR RUMMY, PLENTY OF TIME…FOR ABBAS, NONE TO SPARE

COUNTER MEASURES

Obituaries for Donald Rumsfeld's career have been prepared numerous times during his tenure as defense secretary.And yet Rummy has held on. For the last several months, the buzzards have resumed circling over his office, with rumors that he would depart after next year's Quadrennial Defense Review, a milestone on his quest to transform the military. But, when Thom Shanker and Eric Schmitt of The New York Times sought out Rumsfeld for a piece on his legacy, the 72-year-old secretary opined that "there will be plenty of time."

That's too bad, because, in the piece, the case against Rumsfeld is elegantly--if inadvertently--made by Larry Di Rita, the Pentagon spokesman and occasional Rumsfeld squash partner. Noting how the hard-charging secretary fastidiously measures a daily five-mile walk through the Pentagon, Di Rita tells the Times that his boss is "an inveterate counter with a purpose." From what we've seen of Rumsfeld's counting, that purpose is often to mislead. After all, every figure he has ever given about the size and capability of the Iraqi security forces--whose development is the backbone of Rumsfeld's strategy for post-Saddam Iraq--has been massively inflated, including tens of thousands of soldiers and police who aren't battle-ready or don't even show up for duty. (As defense analyst Anthony Cordesman observed to The Washington Post in January, "All of the numbers are probably valid, and almost none of them are relevant.") Of course, at this point, the Iraq war is basically a nettlesome distraction for Rumsfeld: According to the Times, teleconferences with American commanders in Iraq "have dwindled to a few phone calls a week." This despite renewed insurgent attacks that, over the last two weeks, killed more than 400 Iraqis, as well as a major Marine offensive in the northwest.

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But don't expect Rumsfeld to change course. As he told Shanker and Schmitt, events in the war on terrorism have only "provided added impetus to doing the things that absolutely had to be done in this department"--namely, reshaping the military. If he's right that his vision for the remainder of his tenure is already reflected on the ground in Iraq, we're in a lot of trouble.

COLOR COMMENTARY

Did somebody slip Tom Ridge truth serum? Speaking at a Washington forum this week, the former homeland security secretary revealed that he frequently opposed the Bush administration's decisions to put the United States on high alert for terrorist attacks by elevating the color-coded threat level to orange. "More often than not, we were the least inclined to raise it," Ridge said, according to a report in USA Today. "Sometimes we disagreed with the intelligence assessment. Sometimes we thought, even if the intelligence was good, you don't necessarily put the country on [alert]. … There were times when some people were really aggressive about raising it, and we said, 'For that?'" Of course, Ridge's comments only prompt the question, Why would the Bushies be so aggressive about raising the threat level? Alas, we'll probably never know. After all, if Ridge is anything like other former Bush officials who made the mistake of candor after leaving the administration--most notably former Faith-Based Initiative adviser John DiIulio--then he will soon recant his criticisms (maybe even calling them "groundless and baseless," as DiIulio did), express his deep and sincere remorse for any pain he's caused, and never utter another critical word about his former employer again.

FATAH'S CHANCE

Fatah, the political party of Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas, seems to have won the third round in the local elections of emerging Palestine. But Hamas, the gunmen of virulent Islam in the territories, did especially well in the big towns and cities. This does not augur well for the career of Palestinian moderation nor for the prospects of peace between Israel and the PA. And it does not augur well for the parliamentary elections slated for July.

Hamas is the preferred--no, anointed--voice of the Palestinians who do not benefit from the endemic, widely diffused, and deeply rooted structural corruption of their society. This is Yasir Arafat's literal legacy to his people, and, although Abbas has moved somewhat away from the rais' warlike way of dealing with the Israelis, his regime remains far from accountable, transparent, or honest. Those foreigners who kept Arafat and his minions in power (Kofi Annan, Jacques Chirac, Javier Solana, even Bill Clinton) are therefore also responsible for the hold that dishonesty, raw and cruel, still exercises over Palestinian society. In any case, Israel, which has staked much on Abbas, cannot view his political vulnerabilities calmly. If Hamas comes to power, all of the fundamentals of the road map to peace are jettisoned.

Hamas hasn't pretended for a moment that it is willing to have an independent Palestine live side by side with Israel.This is why Israel has insisted that the PA confiscate illegal weapons and arrest Palestinian terrorists on the loose. The PA, however, has fulfilled none of these obligations. But these obligations resonate in Israel's own history. The Haganah, the army of the pre-state Yishuv (and of immediate post-independence Israel), actually handed--during a painful time called the saison--members of a right-wing Zionist militia, known as the Irgun, which was opposed to partition, over to the British who then governed Mandatory Palestine. And David Ben Gurion, Israel's first prime minister, ordered the Haganah to sink the Altalena, a ship bringing arms to the Irgun in violation of a cease-fire. The command was carried out by a young officer named Yitzhak Rabin. So far, the Palestinian authorities show no evidence of such harsh wisdom.

The Palestinians have also been demanding that Israel release more and more Palestinians in its custody, but Israel has now interrupted the process, saying that the PA has not fulfilled its undertakings to shut down both the terrorist groups still operating and organizing in the territories and the sending of rockets from Gaza into Israel. Releasing resentful prisoners (experienced in violence against Israelis) would be a self-defeating act, especially since those rogue militias would welcome them with open arms; and, if Hamas wins the early summer parliamentary elections, these militias would no longer be rogue but instead the official soldiers of Palestine. In not curbing Palestinian terrorism, Abbas is playing with fire, and it is a fire that may eventually consume him, too.

This article originally ran in the May 23, 2005 issue of the magazine.

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posted in: the new york times, the times, the washington post, anthony cordesman, eric schmitt, larry di rita, mahmoud abbas, thom shanker, hamas, pentagon

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