Henny Penny Harridan
By MAUREEN DOWD
The enunciation of a clear sentence about the war in Iraq by Hillary Clinton means that there must be an election coming up.
Until now, she has been unsubtly subtle about the most urgent issue facing the country, sending signals rightward, sending signals leftward, tacking here, tacking there. Some days she seemed to be signaling whether she intended to signal.
But now, suddenly, she’s a woman of passion, a model of concerned clarity. After an eon of calculated silence on most of the big moral questions of the day, there is a calculated breaking of the silence. The enigma won’t play anymore. It’s time for the drama.
But the drama played like “The Taming of the Shrew,” with the only question being, who was the shrew?
Hillary was trying to bring Rummy to heel, and Rummy was trying to exert manly control over Hillary.
The junior senator from New York staged a drama in three acts, first sending a letter summoning the reluctant Rummy to appear before the Armed Services Committee; then hectoring him with a litany of his “numerous errors in judgment”; and finally at the end of the day, like the Queen of Hearts, delivering her climactic demand for his head.
“I just don’t understand why we can’t get new leadership that would give us a fighting chance to turn the situation around,” Senator Clinton said after the hearing, summing up a truth acknowledged by everyone except W. and Dick Cheney, and particularly felt at the Pentagon, where the deeply unpopular defense chief has gone from self-styled matinee idol to self-destructing idle martinet.
During the hearing, Hillary unmanned Rummy, as Shakespeare would say, accusing him of incompetence, impotence and improbity.
“You did not go into Iraq with enough troops to establish law and order,’’ she said. “You disbanded the entire Iraqi Army. Now we’re trying to recreate it. You did not do enough planning for what is called phase four and rejected all the planning that had been done previously to maintain stability after the regime was overthrown. You underestimated the nature and strength of the insurgency, the sectarian violence and the spread of Iranian influence.”
She pointed out that the administration succeeds only in achieving the opposite of its aims — with the number of American troops in Iraq scheduled to increase, not decrease, and the violence and instability spreading.
She cited the administration’s reality disconnect on the Taliban in Afghanistan, where every new claim of success has been followed by new evidence of failure. The Taliban have been written out of the war by administration flackery, but they keep coming back like Mel Gibson’s hangovers and apologies.
She tartly summed up: “Because of the administration’s strategic blunders and, frankly, the record of incompetence in executing, you are presiding over a failed policy. Given your track record, Secretary Rumsfeld, why should we believe your assurances now?”
There was a pause while Rummy summoned all the condescension he usually reserves for doltish reporters.
“My goodness,’’ he exhaled finally, firing off a defense that could have been translated as: “Where do I start educating you on your utterly superficial understanding of the enemy, you harridan hippy-dippy Henny Penny?”
The Pentagon rank and file have tuned out Rummy, whose only transformation so far has been to transform himself into a dangerous, deluded codger. But when the respected General Abizaid admitted that “it is possible that Iraq could move towards civil war,” it was clear Iraq was already in one. It opened up a river of talk across the river about what people there had long been afraid to say: that Rummy’s jutting jaw is not going to cut it. There needs to be an alternative strategy to keep our kids from having to fight their way out of a sectarian conflagration.
When Hillary and Rummy square off, it is a gladiatorial contest of two masters at hauteur, self-righteousness, scriptedness, infighting and belief in their own manifest destiny.
Hillary wants to avoid Joe Lieberman’s fate by arguing that how the administration went about this war has caused all the problems, not that it went to a needless war she supported. Her stratagem avoids the lie that set off all the other lies, and leaves Hillary risking a John Kerry problem, being both for the war and against it.
It’s going to be a tough triangulation. Even Bill never had to squirm his way out of something as hard as this.
John Tierney is off today.