Jewish World Review Dec. 31, 2001 / 16 Teves, 5762

Paul Greenberg

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Consumer Reports

Right where he belongs -- IT happened while I was watching a telecast of Donald Rumsfeld addressing the NATO ministers in Brussels. He spoke in his businesslike way, much the way he's conducted this war against terrorism. No drums, no bugles. No medals on his chest or Churchillian phrases, and not an ounce of charisma.

Donald Rumsfeld could be president of the Dull Men's Club. Here was a man just getting the job done. And I thought, not for the first time, this is just where he needs to be, and thank goodness he's there.

George W. Bush did a good term's work when he chose Don Rumsfeld as his secretary of defense. The man talks to NATO's ministers the same way he's talked to the press almost daily: without folderol. After so many years of glitz and spin in Washington, his anti-charisma has a certain, well, charisma.

By contrast, the same day's Wall Street Journal included a rundown of the press' coverage of the war in Afghanistan back when it was clear that what Donald Rumsfeld proposed to do couldn't be done. For example:

"This is a war in trouble,'' intoned Daniel Schorr of National Public Radio early on. No less than the distinguished R.W. Apple Jr. of the unembarrassable New York Times was comparing Afghanistan to, of course, Vietnam. Quagmire! To sum up Johnny Apple's analysis and warning at the end of October: "Signs of progress are sparse.''

Even by mid-November, when the Taliban were about to fall apart, Jacob Heilbrun of the Los Angeles Times was depicting the enemy as unbeatable. "There does not appear to be a political force capable of replacing the Taliban,'' he wrote the week before the tide turned and Mazar-e-Sharif fell to the advancing Northern Alliance.

Nothing that American forces were accomplishing in Afghanistan could change the script our seers had adopted from the first. "The United States is not headed into a quagmire; it already is in one,'' wrote the aforesaid Mr. Heilbrun. He was not about to be dissuaded by mere fact.

Maureen Dowd, that other keen military analyst, explained the history and geopolitics of it in her always snappy way: "Now, like the British and Russians before him, (George W. Bush) is facing the most brutish, corrupt, wily and patient warriors in the world.''

This is the kind of insight that validates Ms. Dowd's standing as one of the country's snappier observers of fashion and celebrity. She really shouldn't be wasting all that talent on politics, history, military affairs and other such ephemera. Not when the glib spirit of the Nineties waits to be revived at her mere touch.

Nicholas von Hoffman, who's still good for a hearty laugh after all these years, explained how lost and woebegone our forces were: "We are mapless, we are lost, and we are distracted by gusts of wishful thinking. ... "Moreover, as hellish as the Taliban are, it appears that the ordinary people of Afghanistan prefer them to the brigands and bandits with whom we've been trying to make common cause.''

That sage counsel appeared the week Kabul fell and its people were shown celebrating -- getting a good shave, going to the movies again, letting girls go to school and listening to music for entertainment rather than catching the public executions and mutilations the Taliban were putting on at the arena.

Air power wouldn't work, we were repeatedly told by the estimable Charles Krauthammer and the other boys at The Weekly Standard. Even as air power was working.

The Northern Alliance would not be able to overcome resistance in the South, magazines from Newsweek to The New Republic warned -- just as the Alliance was achieving its breakthrough and about to break out, link up with allies, and overrun the whole country. (''Of all the proxies the United States has enlisted over the past half-century, the Northern Alliance may be the least prepared to attain America's battlefield objectives.'' -- The New Republic, Nov. 19, 2001.)

It was explained that nothing but a massive commitment of ground troops would do to take Kabul. But by the time my copy of The New Republic had arrived, Kabul had fallen.

Ah, but the Muslim world would rise as one against the United States, we were told. So warned The Nation's utterly consistent Katha Pollitt. (She never misses a wrong note.)

What would be the consequences of the American war effort? she asked, and answered her own question by dangling an assortment of fearful possibilities before Worried Reader: "Thousands of new Taliban fans and recruits for anti-American suicide missions? A protracted war with a determined, hardy foe that draws in Central Asia, enrages the Muslim masses and destabilizes Pakistan or Indonesia or another country to be named later?'' Katha Pollitt couldn't conceive of the quieting effect American victory would have on the fabled Arab Street because she couldn't conceive of American victory.

There are a lot more delicious quotes in Matthew Ross' delightful roundup of the usual suspects in the Journal, and I recommend clipping, saving and reading it the next time faint-hearted experts are predicting doom.

Our secretary of defense must not have kept up with NPR, The New York Times and all the magazines. Maybe because he was busy winning a war -- he and a lot of other folks too unsophisticated to realize it couldn't be won.

Mr. Rumsfeld is already looking ahead. He knows the war against terrorism has only begun. That's why he was in Brussels -- to talk about the shape of NATO, and why it shouldn't be diluting its strength on a hundred different peacekeeping missions around the world when it needs to be ready for war-winning duties.

Policing places like the Balkans is useful work, but it's time to let it be done by police forces, not armies that may be needed to crush an enemy. NATO, to quote the secretary of defense, needs to beef up its intelligence work, its precision weapons and its defenses against a range of new threats -- chemical, biological and, yes, nuclear.

The several thousand American troops in the Balkans, and the 39,000 NATO troops there in all, represent only one drain on the Western alliance's military forces, which ought to be concentrating on fighting wars, not playing policeman.

The United States now has forces of varying sizes in some 140 countries around the world -- not just in Germany, Japan and South Korea but in Bosnia, Kosovo, Macedonia, East Timor and the Sinai. And it now takes seven other soldiers to supply and maintain each one in the field.

But the manpower and materiel required by these assignments are the least of the drags on American military power. Reducing an army to a scattered collection of garrison soldiers around the world eats away at its readiness, its morale and its ability to strike quickly with overwhelming power when it needs to -- as in Afghanistan and soon enough elsewhere. Armies rust, too.

While listening to Donald Rumsfeld at Brussels, it occurred that his first stint as secretary of defense (in the Ford administration) was just practice for the job he's doing now that he's seasoned. (He'll be 70 next year.) It's as if the man had been born for this particular time, and this particular service.

For understandable reasons, Time magazine chose Rudy Giuliani as its Man of the Year. Pardon me, Person of the Year. (As if some of us wouldn't have voted for Maggie Thatcher as Man of the Year time and again.) But despite a wealth of choices this fateful year, I might have chosen a different honoree: a plainspoken American who is eloquent only when it comes to results.

You don't run across too many plain people in politics or anywhere else anymore, have you noticed? But this one is right where he belongs.

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