January 1, 2007  

After Rumsfeld

Bloggers react to the SecDef’s departure

For all the invective targeted at Donald Rumsfeld during his final year in office, nobody ever accused him of being a soft touch. And it’s no surprise that the milblog community never knew exactly what to make of its secretary of defense, either. Although many service members respected him for his determination, others saw that determination as a stubbornness that prevented him from changing course when policies did not produce their desired effects.

Boots in Baghdad’s Mark Miner, a Louisiana Army National Guardsman who spent a year in Iraq, regrets Rumsfeld’s departure with the comment that the president is “letting a great leader take the fall for a nation’s ignorance.” He claims that it is even more dangerous to have sent the wrong signal abroad: This “unwise decision … simply displays to our enemies a newfound level of weakness,” and drawing on a Vietnam analogy, it risks signifying that the American will to win the war has already evaporated.

Former Marine Brian Bresnahan, aka the High Plains Patriot, took an informal poll of current and former troops about the decision to axe Rumseld, receiving responses that ranged from “good riddance” to “God help us all.” Like Miner, many of the troops he spoke with were concerned that “the elections and the removal of Rumsfeld is a victory for the insurgents. … After all, it has been the strategy of the terrorists and insurgents to defeat the will of Americans because they can’t defeat the American military.”

Bresnahan likewise finds that all but one of the troops he interviewed thought that withdrawing from Iraq before victory was an unacceptable mistake that would harm the military and U.S. security at home. He points out that Washington’s rearranged leadership should remember that “[t]hose who stand toe-to-toe with Islamic extremists every day … understand the enemy we face, how long we will have to fight them, and the consequences of surrendering the fight.” A useful reminder from the core constituency engaged in this war.

Rumsfeld also earned his share of open detractors among milbloggers. That may not be a surprise given national opinion on his handling of the war, but it is an unusual circumstance from soldiers who normally hold that public criticism of the secretary of defense is, put mildly, “above their paygrade.”

Phillip Carter, a California lawyer and reservist who just returned from a year advising Iraqi police, posted a Slate essay (reprinted on his blog, Intel Dump) in which he argues that “Rumsfeld’s failures transformed the Iraq war from a difficult enterprise into an unwinnable one.” Pointing out that the U.S. once had a robust record of dismissing ineffective civilian military leaders and officers — just consider Lincoln during the Civil War or Roosevelt during World War II — he asks whether Rumsfeld’s departure “signals a new willingness to hold senior officials accountable for the failures at their level.”

“John” at OPFOR provides one of the best-articulated analyses of Rumsfeld’s faults as a secretary who was willing to destroy the military to recreate it under the rubric of “transformation” and suggests a guardedly optimistic assessment of how Rumsfeld’s departure can be used to salvage the war:

“Transformation has failed us in fighting the Iraqi insurgency. It takes troops to sustain an occupation. When you are trying to win hearts and minds, heartless and mindless technological gadgets can’t win the day. Victory takes boots on the ground. … Winning wars means sacrifices, and sacrifices mean greater defense spending, a greater number of troops, and a greater commitment to victory from the American people. The death of Transformation could very well be the birth of victory. Let’s seize the opportunity.”

What to make of Rumsfelds’ successor? For most milbloggers (like most Americans, excepting spooks and Aggies), Robert Gates appeared as an unknown quality on Nov. 8. Miner seemed to post the prototypical response on the afternoon of the announcement: He looked up Gates’ Wikipedia entry, which had already been updated to reflect his nomination, and posted its full text on his blog. J.D. Henderson, a former Army officer and current blogger at Intel Dump, likewise responded to the nomination of Gates by culling the Internet for information, posting a lengthy quotation from Sen. Tom Harkin’s 1991 explanation of his decision to oppose Gates’ confirmation as CIA director, including what Harkin called “concerns about the allegations of his politicization of intelligence analysis, his apparently poor managerial style or still unanswered questions about his role in the Iran-Contra affair.” Henderson concludes that “Harkin’s list of his deficiencies fits EXACTLY with the mistakes that led us into Iraq,” although he later concedes that positive press coverage has caused him to reconsider his doubts.

Gates will require more than the “good luck” that Henderson wishes him. The Iraq Study Group appears poised to serve as a consensus point for those who wish to quickly end the war. And although President Bush commented in late November that “there’s a lot of speculation that these reports in Washington mean there’s going to be some kind of graceful exit out of Iraq,” the truth could not be any more distant. There is no speculation that the American exit envisioned by the authors of the Iraq Study Group report will be “graceful.”

As Gates takes charge of an embattled Pentagon and crafts a new policy for Iraq, the environment could not be more inimical to the type of robust commitment to victory that is necessary if the United States is to achieve even a modicum of its goals in Iraq. The mistakes made over a nearly six-year struggle appear to have already sapped domestic support too much, whether or not troop morale, as indicated by Bresnahan’s interviews, remains buoyant.

The changing of the guard at the Pentagon has at least abolished the pretense that Washington can “stay the course.” Therein lies the last, best chance for the president to work with the handful of congressional leaders who openly support committing the necessary resources to reinvigorate U.S. efforts in Iraq. An exhausted public will not easily be rallied, but the only alternative is to begin to take measure of the scale and cost of America’s defeat.

How to find the blogs mentioned in this article:

Boots in Baghdad


High Plains Patriot


Intel Dump