Politics & Policy

Operation “Gotcha!”

The McCain-Hagel Caucus is helping only its members.

The McCain-Hagel Caucus has spoken. It has no confidence in Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. Senator John McCain has said so explicitly, while Senator Chuck Hagel has only strongly hinted at it. Both senators have 2008 aspirations, and Republican-primary voters would do well to take early note of how they behave during a budding media frenzy directed at one of the Bush administration’s key players.

The get-Rumsfeld crowd–mostly Democrats, joined by the McCain-Hagel caucus and a few stray hawks–takes great umbrage at Rumsfeld’s answer to a National Guardsman’s question about an insufficient number of up-armored Humvees. Hagel intoned, “those men and women deserved a far better answer from their secretary of Defense than a flippant comment.” But Rumsfeld wasn’t being flip. One wonders whether Hagel has even taken the time to read the full transcript of the secretary’s remarks. The troops gave Rumsfeld a standing ovation at the end. Is it the position of the secretary’s critics that the troops were too stupid to realize they had just been belittled?

The comment that has most angered Rumsfeld’s detractors is his statement that you go to war with the Army you have. That may have been too frank in such a forum, but it was true. We went into Iraq with a military not yet fully transformed to adjust to 21st-century reality, which turned out to include an insurgency launched in a harsh urban environment. If Rumsfeld’s hawkish critics, some of whom were banging the drums for the Iraq war for years, thought that war could be responsibly fought only with an Army equipped with 8,000 up-armored Humvees, they had adequate time to make that known–or at least lessen their enthusiasm for the enterprise accordingly. Of course, they didn’t.

Once it became clear exactly what we were facing in Iraq, the Pentagon adjusted. Such adjustments are an inevitable part of any complex and difficult military enterprise. At roughly 140,000, there are many more troops there now than were initially planned. The training of Iraqi forces has undergone changes in both its nature and volume since the end of the war, as we have realized both the importance of the training and our initial failures in its implementation. Over a year ago Pentagon task forces were set up to figure out how best to counter roadside bombs and how to rush equipment–from up-armored Humvees to night-vision goggles–to the troops in the field. In both areas our performance has steadily improved.

“The agenda of most of Rumsfeld’s

critics is clear: to wound the administration

and discredit the war effort.”

Behind much of the criticism of Rumsfeld is the idea that he has disastrously skimped on troop levels, especially when it comes to the occupation. But insurgencies aren’t crushed by sheer numbers. Would that it were so. Counter-insurgency depends on intelligence and a sound political strategy, which in this case involves integrating Iraqi forces into the fight and moving ahead with the elections. Given that more troops would require an even larger logistical tail (read: more Humvees and “soft” vehicles carrying supplies, i.e. more targets) to support them, it makes sense that commanders on the ground aren’t asking for significantly more troops.

The agenda of most of Rumsfeld’s critics is clear: to wound the administration and discredit the war effort by taking the scalp of one of its architects. Some of those coming at Rumsfeld from the right have a more subtle concern. They can’t bear to admit that Iraq has been more difficult than they ever dared imagine, because of the irreducible reality of political and social conditions on the ground. Remaking societies by military means can be harder, bloodier work than some neoconservatives care to acknowledge. That doesn’t mean it’s not worth it, or that our project still won’t succeed in Iraq. We suspect that the January elections will produce a strong a civic statement of the sort we saw in Afghanistan, and thus help shift the political dynamic against the forces of violence.

There is, nonetheless, no easy way to get from here to there. We have made our own criticisms of Rumsfeld and the Pentagon; we wish the Humvee situation had been addressed even more aggressively sooner; and we think Rumsfeld bears some responsibility for the distrust that an element of the brass has for Pentagon civilians. But make no mistake: Anyone else could have been secretary of Defense the last three years and Iraq likely would have been every bit the heartbreakingly trying venture it has proved to be. Gotcha games might divert attention from that fact, but they can never change it. Let’s get on with the prevailing.

The Editors comprise the senior editorial staff of the National Review magazine and website.

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