Rumsfeld's war plan: First, attack the messenger

WASHINGTON—Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld surfaced earlier this month just long enough to fire another volley at the messengers who bring bad news.

The trouble in Iraq, he would have you believe, is all because of the nattering nabobs of negativism, to borrow a phrase from that late paragon of political wisdom and recipient of illicit payoffs, Spiro T. Agnew.

In other words it's those pesky damned reporters. They tend to focus too much on roadside mines and bombs blowing up American soldiers and Marines and the foreign jihadist nut-job suicide bombers. Not to mention the assassins who slaughter political enemies in broad daylight on the roads of Baghdad.

Why, the secretary wants to know, don't those reporters spend a lot more time writing about all the happy news going on in Iraq? The birthing of democracy. The writing of a constitution. The elections this week of a parliament. The reconstruction of a pitiful country and resultant grotesque profits for a multitude of American contractors. Prison reform at Abu Ghraib. Soccer balls for little kids. The creation of an independent press in Iraq as good as money can buy.

Or as Adm. Harry Felt asked an Associated Press reporter in the early days of another American experience, Vietnam: ``Why don't you get on the team?''

Not long after, President Kennedy asked the publisher of The New York Times to pull David Halberstam out of South Vietnam because his stories on the plucky South Vietnamese army were too negative. The publisher politely declined.

When the Bush administration decides that it's time to take a new tack in spinning the war message they first roll out Tweedledeedee, Dick Cheney, and then Tweedledeedum, Don Rumsfeld, to soften up the battlefield for their boss. The president himself is doing a string of speeches on the need for everyone to stand firm and wait patiently for victory in Iraq.

They paint anyone who opposes their incompetent planning and management of an unnecessary war as unpatriotic. They raise up straw men for the pleasure of knocking them down. They rail against those who demand an immediate withdrawal from Iraq when no one is actually suggesting that. Two of their targets, Rep. Nancy Pelosi and Rep. John Murtha, have called for phased withdrawals.

Which, interestingly enough, is precisely what their own trial balloons floating over the Pentagon and Baghdad also suggest is going to happen in 2006. Unidentified Defense Department sources suggest that the current elevated troop level, 158,000 American soldiers and Marines, will swiftly fall back to the old pre-election troop level of 138,000. Then, all things being equal and sometime before Election Day 2006, that level will be further reduced to 100,000 to 110,000.

But Lord knows Mr. Bush and his boys would never cut and run over a little thing like election year politics and doing whatever it takes to hang onto majority control of Congress. You can count on the Iraqi army and security forces becoming much better between now and early next fall so we can hand over authority to them as we wave goodbye.

Which brings us back to the matter of the press. Whether in Vietnam or in Iraq, our job always has been to ask the hard questions about a war; to try to shine some light in the darker corners; to tell the truth no matter how galling that may be for those who have a taste only for good news. Who wish we would just get on the team.

Already the war in Iraq has claimed the lives of more journalists in 33 months than the war in Vietnam cost in 10 years. The journalists in Iraq ride the most dangerous roads in the world and risk their lives daily to do their job. They hardly need the advice of Don Rumsfeld on how it should be done.

If Rumsfeld and his bosses had been doing their jobs as wartime leaders half as well these last couple of years, maybe there would be a lot more good news for the journalists in Iraq to film, photograph and write.



Joseph L. Galloway is the senior military correspondent for Knight Ridder Newspapers and co-author of the national best-seller "We Were Soldiers Once ... and Young