The last week or so could be called “The Army’s Revenge.” There had been resentment toward Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld from the beginning over his attempts to transform the military into a lighter, more modern force. Against the backdrop of the difficulties in Iraq that have weakened the secretary, a handful of retired generals have been able to draw blood with their recent calls for Rumsfeld to step aside (four of them served in the Army, the other two in the Marines).
As a political matter, Rumsfeld’s leaving at this moment, under this kind of fire, would play as an admission that the critics who say the Iraq war was fundamentally botched have been right all along. The White House realizes this, which is one reason President Bush made such a strong statement in support of Rumsfeld on Friday. That retired generals are criticizing a Defense secretary is not, per se, the threat to civil-military relations that some of Rumsfeld’s defenders seem to think. Retired flag officers are citizens after all, and they’re free to say whatever they want. But there is something unseemly about it, especially considering that most of them apparently kept conveniently quiet about their misgivings while in uniform.
More important, the criticisms of Rumsfeld don’t have much force. Some say he is too imperious. This charge isn’t hard to believe of the strong-willed Rumsfeld, but it is disappointing that generals are apparently so easily cowed that their only recourse when dealing with a muscular Defense secretary is to whine about it after the fact. Others complain about his “micro-management” of the war. It is true that Rumsfeld has exercised a remarkably strong hand in dealing with the military. In planning for the initial Iraq invasion in particular, he was relentless in challenging the work of CENTCOM commander Tommy Franks, driving him to come up with a plan that wasn’t just an unimaginative repeat of Desert Storm. The plan didn’t suffer from Rumsfeld’s intense attention; in fact, the opposite was the case. Even such Rumsfeld critics as Cobra II authors Michael Gordon and Gen. Bernard Trainor credit the innovation and effectiveness of the invasion.
As a matter of principle, micromanagement from a Defense secretary is not a bad thing, even if Robert McNamara gave it a bad name during the Vietnam War. Our system is based on the U.S. military’s taking direction from civilian leadership. There is no reason to think that the assumption behind the micromanagement criticism of Rumsfeld–that if only the generals had been left to their own devices, things would have turned out fine–is true. Rumsfeld should actually be faulted for not micromanaging Tommy Franks enough when it came to planning for postwar operations, in which the general had little or no interest.
Some of the retired generals blame Rumsfeld for not providing enough troops to secure Iraq. This is now a hoary debate, and a reasonable case can be made that more troops were necessary. But if there were officers who wanted larger force levels, there were others who did not. Rumsfeld routinely consulted with his chairmen of the joint chiefs–first Richards Meyers and now Peter Pace–and other top commanders, who agreed that it wasn’t more U.S. forces, but more Iraqi forces, that were the key to victory. The retired critics are making a harsh implied criticism of these generals, suggesting that careerism prevented them from speaking truth to power about troop levels. The generals who agreed with Rumsfeld might have been wrong, but there is no evidence that they were cowardly or dishonorable.
Retired Army Major General John Batiste has faulted Rumsfeld for insufficient postwar planning. Given that almost all of the administration’s major postwar assumptions proved to be wrong–especially about the continued existence of an effective Iraqi army and police force to provide security–that is a fair criticism. But Batiste was at one point the top military aide to then deputy secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz. He seemed to share the vision of the Pentagon’s civilian team, and so was awarded a second star and, ultimately, command of a division in Iraq. Once there, he gave every appearance of supporting the strategy and talked of the progress we were making. It’s his prerogative to change his mind, but doing so should involve some humility and the admission that he too was wrong about postwar Iraq. Instead, he suggests every mistake was Rumsfeld’s alone.
There is, finally, a root-and-branch criticism that some of the retired generals make, especially Gens. Zinni and Newbold. They say the Iraq war was a foolish endeavor to begin with, and, in a mind-numbing recitation of all the conventional Arabist beliefs, insist that there is nothing wrong with the Middle East that can’t be fixed by cracking down on Israel. This isn’t a criticism of Rumsfeld, but of President Bush and his entire foreign policy. They surely would be no happier with any replacement Defense secretary who is equally committed to implementing Bush’s vision.
The debate over Rumsfeld is disappointing in its simplistic assumption that the long, hard slog in Iraq is the doing of one man. There were plenty of mistakes made in Iraq, and there is blame enough to go around. The important questions now have to do with how to prevail in the current conditions in Iraq, and on this the retired generals have little to say, exposing their own lack of seriousness.
All this said, the White House should have no illusions: Rumsfeld is a diminished figure. He has been worn down from being the figurehead of a war the difficulty and cost of which were significantly undersold by the administration, and the ultimate result of which still seems very much in doubt, despite the administration’s perpetual optimism. Ultimately, this is Bush’s war, and it is his historical reputation that will rise or fall with it, whatever media squalls break out over his secretary of Defense. If winning or gaining in the war were a simple matter of sacking Rumsfeld, we’d favor doing it immediately. Alas, it isn’t nearly that simple.