Bush administration Rule No. 1: When cornered, smear the questioner. That's what happened last week when the Pentagon responded to a query about Iraq from Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton.
Specifically, Undersecretary of Defense Eric Edelman issued a written response to Clinton, lecturing her that her question about how the United States plans to eventually withdraw from Iraq "reinforces enemy propaganda that the United States will abandon its allies in Iraq, much as we are perceived to have done in Vietnam, Lebanon and Somalia."
Memo to the undersecretary: Senators are supposed to ask questions. The legislative branch is supposed to monitor the executive branch. That duty may be particularly sensitive in time of war, but that is also when it is most urgent, especially when the administration in question has demonstrated an overarching lack of competence almost from the start.
The country wouldn't be in this position if the administration had played straight with the American public as it prepared for war, if it had laid even rough plans for how to administer Iraq after combat, if it showed any flexibility of means or ends as the situation there deteriorated, virtually from the moment the administration declared "Mission Accomplished."
Indeed, Bush's conduct of this war has been so inept that Clinton and other elected officials would be derelict if they failed to question plans for the day that every knows is coming, possibly sooner than later. Given the Pentagon's failure to plan for the defeat of Saddam Hussein, who can have confidence that it is making plans for withdrawal?
Remember, this is the same administration whose former defense secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, forbade military strategists to plan for securing post-war Iraq on the grounds that "the American public will not back us if they think we are going over there for a long war," as retired Brig. Gen. Mark Scheid recalled the conversation.
It is also the administration in which the same defense secretary forced out the Army Chief of Staff, Gen. Eric Shinseki, who dared to tell Congress that hundreds of thousands of troops would be needed to secure post-war Iraq.
It is also the administration whose vice president, Dick Cheney, criticized war critics on the grounds that domestic debate about Iraq emboldens terrorists who think they can outlast U.S. patience there. That's what happens when public officials deal deceitfully with the public about a matter as urgent as war. The administration prepared the ground for its critics.
This administration has been disastrous in the conduct of this war. It has given the public every reason to distrust its judgment. The only choice is for Congress to exert its influence.
Clinton's question was appropriate. The Pentagon might appropriately prefer to answer it confidentially, but it needs to answer, not try once again to change the subject.