The Corner

Responding to Di Rita

Larry Di Rita’s defense of his former bosses is a remarkable demonstration of the personal loyalty that made the Bush administration, and particularly the Bush Pentagon through 2006, what it was: a tight-knit, inward-looking group largely unable to entertain facts or ideas that did not fit into the world they had constructed for themselves. 

As befits someone who served at Donald Rumsfeld’s side and briefly served as his spokesman, Di Rita’s complaint regarding my analysis of President Bush’s wartime leadership is chiefly a defense of Rummy and his pet project, defense “transformation.” He rightly cites candidate Bush’s 1999 speech at The Citadel as the point at which the course of the original Bush defense policy was charted. But a closer reading of that speech would also reveal where things began to go wrong. 


Indeed, passages that Di Rita himself quotes in defense would be part of the indictment. President Bush has defended the United States against “missiles”–through missile defense programs–and against “terror and madmen.” That there hasn’t been a repeat of the September 11 attacks is perhaps the administration’s greatest accomplishment. But these were not the only missions that Bush gave to U.S. armed forces. The men who mocked Bill Clinton’s penchant for “nation building” have undertaken tasks of reconstruction in Iraq and Afghanistan that are exponentially greater. What Di Rita describes as the “prophetic assessment” of the Citadel speech was dangerously incomplete and strategically flawed. Rumsfeld remained committed to building “the military of the next century” while wars of this century were going wrong. 


Secretary Rumsfeld was the primary architect of the “small footprint” philosophy and was ruthless in suppressing criticism of that approach among his generals. Di Rita cites Rumsfeld’s recall of Gen. Peter Schoomaker to serve as Army chief of staff after the retirement of Gen. Eric Shinseki as an innovative appointment. But in his confirmation hearing, Schoomaker told the Senate Armed Services Committee: “I think we need more people. I mean, it’s just that simple.” Rumsfeld’s reaction was quick and firm: “Thus far, the analysis that’s been done indicates we’re fine.” Schoomaker got the message. 


Di Rita goes beyond credibility in suggesting that the Rumsfeld Pentagon advocated larger land forces. It’s true that the size of the active Army has been close to 700,000 in recent years–but that’s because the number of Guardsmen and reservists called to active duty has remained more than 100,000 since 9/11. The 40,000-soldier increase approved by the Bush administration happened largely during Gates’ watch, not Rumsfeld’s. 


I could go on, but that would be to argue the facts, futile in this case. The National Review article that provoked Di Rita’s ire was headlined: “Lincoln, Churchill, Bush?” Hardly the stuff of a New York Times hit piece, my analysis attempted a sympathetic explanation of the challenges that the president faced. And I concluded with the observation that future presidents needed to match George Bush’s perseverance and “moral courage” in trying times. But Di Rita’s response underscores why perseverance and loyalty are not enough: It’s impossible to “see war without illusions” when your principle interest is protecting your boss.

–  Thomas Donnelly is a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. He is the author of The Military We Need: The Defense Requirements of the Bush Doctrine, and with Fred Kagan is the co-author of Ground Truth: The Future of U.S. Land Power.


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