Where Rumsfeld Really Failed
NRO is wrong about what he couldn't do.


Last week, National Review reluctantly concluded that, despite his stellar performance in other areas, when it came to Iraq, outgoing Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld “made serious — perhaps catastrophic — mistakes.”

If you look at the war in Iraq as NR’s editors, and most other Americans, currently do — as a local war, a war in one country only — this conclusion is all but inescapable. As the editors correctly note, the basic objective in counterinsurgency warfare in any country is to provide security to the population. We have been trying to do that in Iraq with something like 130,000 – 160,000 troops for over three years now, and we haven’t succeeded. Instead, we face a continuing insurgency and a looming civil war. From this perspective, it makes obvious sense to argue that if we put many more U.S. boots on the ground, we would have a much better chance of quelling both the insurgency and the civil war, establishing security at last and, with it, the victory we all pray for. From this perspective, Rumsfeld’s steady opposition to any large increases in the number of American troops in Iraq can only be seen as a serious — perhaps catastrophic — mistake; and a peculiar blind spot for a man NR rightly recognizes as a visionary in so many other areas of military strategy and defense policy.

The editors here offer a number of possible explanations for this blind spot, but there is one possibility they failed to consider, or even to recognize: the possibility that Rumsfeld’s whole perspective on the war in Iraq is fundamentally different from theirs because he sees it as a regional war; a war that Iran, aided and abetted by its client-state, Syria, and its proxy army, Hezbollah, is waging against us. From this perspective, the war in Iraq, as President Bush has thus far insisted on defining and fighting it, ends up being for Iran an all-gain, no-pain proxy war — a war in which Iran can insure our eventual defeat in Iraq, without paying any real price for it, by continuing to refuel both the insurgency and the civil war there for as long as it takes to get us to give up. How this is done is no secret: Iran sends a never-ending supply of money, men, and weapons to Sunni as well as Shia terrorists inside Iraq, and gives them all a safe-haven network of extra-territorial training and supply bases — some on Iranian soil, others just across the border in Syria.

From this perspective, it doesn’t make a lot of sense to send greatly increased numbers of U.S. troops to Iraq. We would still be fighting a basically defensive war, and doing it in a way that would greatly increase the cost to us, in money and perhaps in blood as well, without dealing with the most intractable of the many problems we face in Iraq: the Iranian offensive. From this perspective, it makes much more sense to send American planes, warships, and missiles to strike Iran hard enough to cripple its regime’s ability to make war on us — in Iraq or anywhere else — with either the conventional weapons they already have or the nuclear weapons they are racing to produce. I have been arguing for some time now that that is what America must do — get off the defensive, go on offense, and bring the war home to Iran — in order to start winning at last, not just in Iraq, but in the global, multi-front terror war our Islamofascist enemies are waging against us with increasing ferocity, vastly encouraged by Iran’s growing success and seeming invincibility (see, e.g., here and here). A small but growing number of others have been willing to make the same essential point, plainly, in print: namely, that we need to hit Iran, not with straw sanctions tomorrow, but with real missiles today, because if we don’t, things will go downhill for us very rapidly. Those others include Lt. Gen. Thomas McInerney and Major Gen. Paul Vallely (End Game), Mark Steyn (City Journal), Lt. Col. Gordon Cucullu (Front Page), Quin Hillyer (American Spectator), Mark Levin (NRO), and Arthur Herman (Commentary).

The obvious question, at this point, is this: If Rumsfeld really does see the war in Iraq as a regional war that we must fight as such if we are to win, why the devil didn’t he say so? The answer, I think, is that he did, many times and in many ways, starting in 2003. But he would have said it only to the president he agreed to serve, and to a very few trusted allies, like Vice President Cheney, who share Rumsfeld’s sense of the loyalty that serving cabinet members owe to their commander-in-chief in a time of war. To the best of my knowledge, the only time Rumsfeld made it clear, in public, that he disagreed with the president on the scope of the war was when he acknowledged that he had asked for permission to cross the border into Syria to strike terrorists fleeing there after carrying out attacks in Iraq. He asked a number of times, beginning in 2003. The president said no.

Why, then — it seems reasonable to ask — didn’t Rumsfeld resign years ago? Didn’t he recognize the obvious risk that he would fail to persuade George W. Bush to acknowledge the scope of the war; and that then he would end up being the scapegoat for this president’s misconceptions about the war in Iraq and the overall state of the Muslim world today? Rumsfeld was most likely keenly aware of the likelihood of that outcome, but had three reasons for remaining at his post in spite of it. First, he wanted time to do all the good and important things he has done to modernize our military forces and upgrade our defenses. Second, he thought there was a chance, however slim, that he might eventually persuade the president to redefine the war we are fighting in a more realistic way. Then the president would be able to use the bully pulpit to educate the American people about the war that is being waged against us and the offensive action we must take to win it.

Finally, I think Secretary Rumsfeld feared that when he left, he would be replaced by a very different Defense secretary — a man clever enough to share his own understanding of Iran’s centrality to the war in Iraq and much else, but not wise enough to see, or not principled enough to admit, that attempts to avoid a military confrontation with Iran by “opening a dialogue” or striking a deal have no more chance of success today than Neville Chamberlain’s dialogues and deals with Hitler did in the 1930s. With the nomination of Robert Gates, a man strongly backed by the first President Bush and his key deal-makers, James Baker and Brent Scowcroft, it seems that Secretary Rumsfeld has proved prescient once again. And I think that Republican hawks like Bill Kristol at The Weekly Standard — hawks who have been screaming for Rumsfeld’s scalp for years — are not going to like the results, because, in the end, no American patriot will.

Barbara Lerner is a frequent NRO contributor.