Donald Rumsfeld is out as secretary of Defense. His departure was a necessary precondition for President Bush to win any measure of public support for the sort of fresh departures his Iraq policy needs. It was also justified on the merits. More than three years on, the Iraq War is arguably going more poorly than ever.
Rumsfeld had lost the ability to speak with much credibility about the war. He has become a radioactive figure partly because of vicious and unfair attacks on him from the left and (occasionally) the right, attacks from which we have often defended him. But he is also radioactive because he is associated with the biggest failure of the Bush administration, one that sank the Republican party in Tuesday’s elections and that, much more importantly, threatens a dangerous and long-lasting setback to the interests of the United States.
Rumsfeld is a talented and principled public servant whose legacy will include many accomplishments. His invasion plan for Afghanistan was revolutionary, coupling small American teams on the ground with precision airpower. His Iraq invasion plan emphasized joint operations by the military’s different branches, and substituted speed for mass in a lightning strike that toppled Saddam in weeks and defied all the critics.
Against opposition from the Pentagon bureaucracy, Rumsfeld has pushed to transform the military. The Army is moving from an emphasis on heavy divisions designed to fight the Soviets to a more supple system of smaller, rotating combat brigades. He has killed ill-considered weapons systems such as the Crusader, a laughably immobile piece of notionally mobile artillery. He has modernized the Pentagon’s personnel system and reorganized its intelligence operations to make them more effective.
Despite his reputation as a bullheaded unilateralist, he has insisted on building partnerships in places like the Philippines, Pakistan, and the Horn of Africa. He has pushed NATO to take on more global responsibilities, and overseen a shift away from the old Cold War global posture that kept many more troops than necessary in South Korea and Europe.
He has always been visionary on missile defense, realizing that the ABM treaty was a relic and that the U.S. had to respond to the new strategic environment created by the threat of rogue-state ballistic missiles.
Finally, he believed that civilians should run the Pentagon, and held to that belief despite the odd ad hoc alliance of disgruntled generals and media who thought the brass should be calling the shots. That was how the Pentagon had operated in the Clinton years, when it had basically slipped (inept) civilian control.
All of this speaks to Rumsfeld’s strengths as a public servant. But over time, as conditions in Iraq have drifted downward, his failings have become more evident. Perhaps Iraq was inherently such a difficult venture that no defense secretary would have been able to handle it well. History will tell. But at this juncture we can only conclude that Rumsfeld has made serious — perhaps catastrophic — mistakes.
It takes money to transform the military, and it also takes money to make the military larger. Both are needed. But Rumsfeld and Bush chose transformation over size, even though 9/11 had made it clear that the military was too small. (It had been pretty clear even in the late 1990s.) Rumsfeld seemed to believe that he could skate through the Afghan and Iraq Wars with the current force, while at the same time transforming the military so that more combat power would eventually be available through various efficiencies. Given that Iraq evolved into a grinding counterinsurgency war requiring lots of troops on the ground, this was a terrible mistake.
Like Gen. Tommy Franks, he showed very little interest in planning for post-combat stability operations in Iraq. This was an error too, one for which we are still paying and from which we may never recover. Rumsfeld famously talks of “unknowns,” but he failed to take the most elementary precaution of planning for the worst case.
After that, he never adopted the basic principle of waging counterinsurgency warfare: providing security to the population. He worried that too many American troops would alienate the population, and wanted Iraqis to provide security. These were reasonable positions. Experience, however, made it obvious that the Iraqis wouldn’t soon be up to the task — so the only sensible alternative was to send more American troops. But Rumsfeld scoffed at those calling for more “boots on the ground,” and instead presided over military operations in Iraq that again and again and again cleared areas of insurgents without holding those areas afterwards, thus allowing the insurgents to return. This is the root of the failure of the latest plan to secure Baghdad, a failure that has helped prompt the latest round of disenchantment with the Iraq War.
All of this has brought us to a perilous position in which defeat seems more likely than victory. We hope the ascension of Robert Gates as Rumsfeld’s replacement at least brings “fresh eyes” to Iraq policy, as Bush put it yesterday. Bush needs to send more troops to Baghdad in another attempt to secure the city, at the same time he takes on a few of the least objectionable Democratic ideas to put his war policy on a more bipartisan footing.
There was no hope of getting such bipartisan support as long as Rumsfeld stayed in office, and any new policy would have been hurt by its mere association with Rumsfeld. As Bush noted yesterday, Donald Rumsfeld is a brave man and a great American patriot. But his tenure as secretary of Defense was deeply flawed.