Magazine | July 18, 2011, Issue

Managing War

A Vulcan’s Tale: How the Bush Administration Mismanaged the Reconstruction of Afghanistan, by Dov S. Zakheim (Brookings, 320 pp., $32.95)

As Cicero observed in his Fifth Philippic, “money forms the sinews of war.” Of course, money is never limitless, and wars have foundered on this fact. Any strategy that ignores resource constraints is destined to fail.

This reality is driven home by Dov Zakheim in his important and informative new book, A Vulcan’s Tale. From his perspective as under secretary of defense (comptroller) in the Bush administration — “the guy holding the checkbook” — Zakheim provides a useful overview of the administration’s approach to the post-9/11 wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. It is a useful supplement to other recent memoirs by major actors in the post-9/11 drama, most notably Donald Rumsfeld.

The word “Vulcans” of the book’s title originated with Condoleezza Rice, who applied it “somewhat playfully” to a group of eight individuals who advised George W. Bush on foreign and national-security issues as the Texas governor made his first run for the presidency. The Vulcans, in addition to Zakheim, included Richard Armitage, Robert Blackwill, Stephen Hadley, Richard Perle, Robert Zoellick, Paul Wolfowitz, and Scooter Libby. All had served in the Reagan or George H. W. Bush administrations, Zakheim as deputy under secretary of defense for planning and resources for the Reagan Pentagon. The group was the subject of James Mann’s 2004 book Rise of the Vulcans: The History of Bush’s War Cabinet.

According to Zakheim, “the Vulcans composed a core of individuals whose experience, personal ties, and role in the campaign affected the views and conduct of the Bush administration” during and after the 9/11 attacks and the subsequent wars. He is quick to point out, however, that the composition of the group, the homogeneity of its members’ views, and its influence on the actual conduct of affairs have been greatly distorted.

For example, Zakheim argues that Vulcan and neoconservative — “a label that has itself been distorted beyond recognition from its original meaning” — are not synonymous. Some of the Vulcans were indeed “muscular idealists” who favored a democracy agenda, but most, including Zakheim, were realists of one sort or another who saw democracy promotion as “naïve and potentially dangerous.” And Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, Colin Powell, Douglas Feith, and George Tenet were never Vulcans; and of these, only Feith might be called a neoconservative.

While Zakheim expresses pride in his service during the Bush administration, he confesses disappointment with some of the consequences of the administration’s policies. But, he says, his “tale is in no way lurid. The administration’s shortcomings were not a consequence of criminality, or moral debasement, or stupidity, or a lack of patriotism and good intentions, as so many frenzied anti-Bush ideologues have charged . . . [but] above all, of the inherent novelty and difficulty of the challenges the administration faced,” as well as of deficiencies arising both from the structure of the federal government and from its leaders. Thus A Vulcan’s Tale is a helpful corrective to the widely accepted narrative that U.S. foreign policy during the Bush administration was hijacked by a cabal of neoconservatives.

The book’s subtitle, “How the Bush Administration Mismanaged the Reconstruction of Afghanistan,” is somewhat misleading. While Zakheim makes many important observations about the mistakes the administration made regarding Afghanistan, the real value of the book is in its treatment of a broad array of topics that go far beyond the particulars of nation-building in Afghanistan. As he observes, “the devil is indeed in the details” when it comes to implementing public policy: “As someone who had spent half his professional life in the world of policy and the other half in the world of programs and budgets, I saw unfold before my eyes, to my regret, strong evidence that the twain still do not meet.” As Cicero observed, money lies at the heart of implementation.

#page#The comptroller’s job is to ensure that the money is available to run the Pentagon. But Zakheim details the many restrictions that the Department of Defense faced as it tried to spend the money that Congress authorized and appropriated in the wake of 9/11. The fact is that DoD’s annual appropriation is for the normal operation of the department; supplemental appropriations are necessary to finance wars. Congress places restrictions on how supplemental funds may be spent, which limits the discretion of the department in “reprogramming” appropriated money. This makes sense most of the time, but under the circumstances that DoD faced in the aftermath of 9/11 and the lead-up to the U.S. counteroffensive in Afghanistan, these restrictions created real problems.

As DoD comptroller, Zakheim also faced problems within the executive branch itself, most notably the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), which insisted on inserting itself into the detailed process of authorizing the distribution of congressionally appropriated funds to the military services. It did not help that he had a contentious relationship with the deputy director of OMB, Robin Cleveland, who was able to make end runs around Zakheim to reach Paul Wolfowitz, the deputy secretary of defense. Despite the fact that both Zakheim and Wolfowitz were Vulcans, they often disagreed on policy issues.

The military services created another complication for Zakheim as comptroller. Donald Rumsfeld is often criticized for his failure to adapt to the changing character of the Iraq War once that conflict began, shortchanging the troops by failing to provide them with armored “humvees” and the like. But Zakheim makes it clear that even as the Iraq War was under way, the Army did not immediately ask for the vehicles; its priority, as is usually the case with the uniformed services, was to acquire “big ticket” items. It was only after the insurgency began and the threat posed by improvised explosive devices (IEDs) became apparent that the Army began to push for supplemental spending to “up-armor” the utility vehicles.

Along these lines, Zakheim also points out one of the dominant civil-military strains of the Iraq War: the clash between the Army and Rumsfeld over the latter’s concept of defense “transformation.” The Army saw Rumsfeld as an adversary who opposed the service’s modernization. Rumsfeld saw the Army as resisting the transformation of the military into a more mobile and flexible force. This bad blood did much to poison civil-military relations during the Iraq War.

In September 2002, Rumsfeld tapped Zakheim as the coordinator for Afghan reconstruction, a job that normally would have fallen under the purview of Douglas Feith, the under secretary of defense for policy. His appointment to this collateral duty convinced Zakheim that a war against Iraq was imminent and that the administration was losing interest in Afghanistan.

There were to be turf wars with the Department of State and conflicts with his nemesis at OMB, Robin Cleveland. The former reflected a lack of unity of effort that undercut U.S. operations in the country; the latter meant that OMB inadequately funded State and the U.S. Agency for International Development early in the war, paving the way for an extended conflict. But for Zakheim, this shift away from Afghanistan illustrated a quintessentially American problem, demonstrating “that, as had been the case when the Soviets were driven out of Afghanistan, the United States simply could not maintain its focus on an area that no longer had ‘crisis’ written all over it.”

Zakheim observes that historians will long debate whether the costs of the Iraq War were the consequence of flawed policy or inadequate implementation. He contends that no such debate is necessary when it comes to Afghanistan: “Through sins of both commission and omission, the Bush administration was often incapable of effectively implementing manifestly good policies, sound ideas, and wisely chosen goals.”

A Vulcan’s Tale provides valuable insight not only regarding the wars of the post-9/11 era but also about the activities of the U.S. government in general. He observes that too many Washington policymakers see themselves as “big thinkers” for whom “the details will take care of themselves.” But even the best policy goals are not likely to be fulfilled without equally good plans for implementing them. As the mice in one of Aesop’s fables realized, belling the cat is a good idea in theory, but someone actually has to do it.

– Mr. Owens is professor of national-security affairs at the Naval War College in Newport, R.I.; editor of Orbis, the quarterly journal of the Foreign Policy Research Institute (FPRI); and author of US Civil-Military Relations After 9/11: Renegotiating the Civil-Military Bargain.

In This Issue


Politics & Policy

Mad as Hell

The vicissitudes of the marketplace are, as everyone knows, not easily calculable. Who, for example, would have foreseen that a pamphlet written by a 93-year-old man, and published by a ...


Books, Arts & Manners

Politics & Policy

Cruel, Cruel Summer

When Christopher Nolan’s Inception made a fortune at the box office last summer, while the usual lineup of sequels, remakes, reboots, and superhero vehicles failed to live up to expectations, ...
The Straggler

Ex Libris

Miss Straggler, just graduated from high school and with time on her hands, came home the other day with two boxes of secondhand books on the back seat of the ...


The Long View

For AARP Strategy Group Only

  CLOSE HOLD DOCUMENT Focus Group Results AARP Medicare and Entitlement Reform Messaging Strategy Present: MODERATOR MALE, AGE 19 MALE, AGE 22 MALE, AGE 27 FEMALE, AGE 8 FEMALE, AGE 25 FEMALE, AGE 29 MODERATOR: Welcome, everyone, and thanks for coming. As ...
Politics & Policy


BLUE SKIES, 8:46 That I can safely watch them safely graze Might seem like little. Still, it feels like much Beside this fenced-in field this day of days. The distant bay and — close ...
Happy Warrior

Debtor Demographics

The other day, Abdul Qadir Fitrat, the governor of Afghanistan’s central bank, fled the country. The only wonder is that there aren’t more fleeing. Not Afghans; central bankers. I mean, ...
Politics & Policy


Mystery Mnemonic In his column in the June 6 issue, Richard Brookhiser mentions what he says is a mnemonic: “Some men have many stones, but we have lots of hair.” Please, ...
Politics & Policy

The Week

‐ Rich Lowry’s wedding to Vanessa Palo went off without a hitch, and the two are now on honeymoon. So the trend of beautiful young brides jilting old magazine editors ...

Most Popular


Kamala Harris Runs for Queen

I’m going to let you in on a secret about the 2020 presidential contest: Unless unforeseen circumstances lead to a true wave election, the legislative stakes will be extremely low. The odds are heavily stacked against Democrats’ retaking the Senate, and that means that even if a Democrat wins the White House, ... Read More

What We’ve Learned about Jussie Smollett

It’s been a few weeks since March 26, when all charges against Jussie Smollett were dropped and the actor declared that his version of events had been proven correct. How’s that going? Smollett’s celebrity defenders have gone quiet. His publicists and lawyers are dodging reporters. The @StandwithJussie ... Read More
Energy & Environment

The Climate Trap for Democrats

The more the climate debate changes, the more it stays the same. Polls show that the public is worried about climate change, but that doesn’t mean that it is any more ready to bear any burden or pay any price to combat it. If President Donald Trump claws his way to victory again in Pennsylvania and the ... Read More
White House

Sarah Sanders to Resign at End of June

Sarah Huckabee Sanders will resign from her position as White House press secretary at the end of the month, President Trump announced on Twitter Thursday afternoon. Sanders, the daughter of former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee, succeeded Sean ... Read More
Politics & Policy

But Why Is Guatemala Hungry?

I really, really don’t want to be on the “Nicolas Kristof Wrote Something Dumb” beat, but, Jiminy Cricket! Kristof has taken a trip to Guatemala, with a young woman from Arizona State University in tow. “My annual win-a-trip journey,” he writes. Reporting from Guatemala, he discovers that many ... Read More
Politics & Policy

On Painting Air Force One

And so it has come to this. Two oil tankers were just attacked in the Gulf of Oman, presumably by Iran. The United States and China are facing off in a confrontation that is about far more than trade. The southern border remains anarchic and uncontrolled. And Congress is asking: “Can I get the icon in ... Read More