A small number of generals, whom nobody had heard of prior to last week, have called for Donald Rumsfeld's resignations. Prominent military leaders such as General Richard Myers have properly condemned this. But given Condoleeza Rice's recent admission that the US made thousands of tactical errors in Operation Iraqi Freedom, it is worth considering the merit, if any, of these inappropriate calls.
The whole Iraq operation needs to be considered in four phases: the preliminaries, the invastion, the occupation, and the post-occupation phase. Of these four, the only one that lies solely within the preserve of Donald Rumsfeld and the Pentagon was the invasion. The State Department was the lead department in the preliminaries and in the post-occupation phase - ie, since the Iraqi civilian government has been in office, in succession to the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA). While the CPA was the governing authority in Iraq responsibility for was shared by the Pentagon, State Department, and the other Coalition countries, especially Britain and Australia.
The administration had some notable successes in the preliminary phases, but also some notable failures. There are more countries involved in this coalition than in the previous Gulf War, but some significant countries such as France and Germany were overtly hostile to the liberation of Iraq, despite supporting the liberation of Kuwait. It is facile to equate France and Germany with 'the international community' as critics of the administration do, but the diplomatic failures during this phase were nonetheless significant.
The invasion itself was the best planned and implemented of the four phases. The BBC and CNN rolled out military 'experts' to predict that it would take months or years, and to ridicule Dick Cheney when he said it would take 'weeks rather than months'. My own estimate was 3-6 weeks, which is entirely consistent with Cheney's language. It actually took 19 days. The main thing slowing down the advance of Coalition troops was having to accept the surrender of so many Iraqi soldiers. This is a country the size of France and which had a million men under arms. Nineteen days is pretty impressive.
No doubt mistakes were made during the occupation phase. Keeping the Iraqi military intact would have been very risky, but so was breaking it up. Perhaps a method that allowed soldiers who surrendered to stay in uniform and criminalised the rest could have been found. Nonethelesss, it needs to recognised that this is a complex task, which no government or set of allies has undertaken on this scale since the 1940s, and progress was both smoother and quicker than in Germany and Japan.
In the post-occupation phase the security situation deteriorated for a while, and is now improving again. There are a variety of reasons. The fact that the invasion proceeded so quickly became a problem at this point. The Iraqi army was never defeated in battle: it mostly ran away. The result is that hundreds of thousands of baathist soldiers are still alive and some have joined foreign jihadists in fighting against the Iraqi government. The last spasm of the jihad was in the summer and autumn of last year, in order to prevent the referendum and second election. It failed, and the so-called insurgency is now in full retreat. The failure to, yet, tackle Iran and Syria has made the security situation in Iraq worse.
On the whole it is clear that the best planned and prepared of the four phases was the only one in which the Pentagon and Donald Rumsfeld took principal responsibility. In accepting that mistakes had been made, Secretary Rice was, properly, taking responsibility for the failings of her own department. Colin Powell was a remarkable figure in many ways. But he did not deliver on his part of the task, which was to maximise international support and minimise opposition. To call for Donald Rumsfeld's resignation over Colin Powell's failings seems perverse and fatuous.
The administration certainly made mistakes, but the man responsible has already resigned. Those who try to reapportion the blame are doing so for purely partisan motives or because of resentment over personal slights.