January 1, 2007  

Why did Donald Rumsfeld fail?

The man hired to transform the Pentagon could not change himself

Perhaps no secretary of defense has been better qualified. This was Donald Rumsfeld’s second tour of duty in the Pentagon. He is bright, energetic and was a serious student of developments in military affairs in the years prior to assuming office. He has been a distinguished public servant and a man of great integrity. He enjoyed a mandate from his president, as well as an exceptional loyalty, until the moment of his resignation.

It is a profound irony that the man hired to change the American way of war could not set aside his preconceptions. While attempting to “transform the Pentagon,” Rumsfeld could not change himself quickly enough.

The source of much of this irony lies in the idea of military transformation, a product of the defense reformers of the 1990s who believed they saw a “revolution in military affairs.” Once Rumsfeld became defense secretary and the concepts of the transformationists were set in a Pentagon context — once U.S. military strategy became a strategy for transformation — the result was a profoundly self-referential view of war that accounts for many of our sorrows in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Transformation, Rumsfeld-style, has measured ever-improving American capabilities without much thought for the enemy. Indeed, the post-Cold War era was considered to be a period of strategic pause, a long peace during which U.S. forces could ready themselves for the next big contest. Although it was impossible to predict who the enemy would be, we could gauge how he would fight. But the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, marked a strategic surprise, not a strategic pause, and the long peace has been transformed into a “Long War.”

Thus, in Iraq, the measures of the initial invasion plan were how rapidly the march to Baghdad could be accomplished and with how small a force. To be sure, Rumsfeld’s imperatives produced in Iraq, as they had in Afghanistan, a level of innovation that military commanders could not have managed on their own. He also demanded and got an unprecedented level of integration between conventional and special operations forces. In these two remarkable lightning campaigns, Rumsfeld could claim he understood the superiority of U.S. forces better than their own commanders did. It really did appear that there had been a revolution in warfare.

Alas, the war did not end with the flight of the Taliban or the toppling of the Saddam statues. Rather, “the Long War” was simply entering a new phase.

Rumsfeld has not been the only one to struggle to understand the nature of “the Long War,” but as the man with the task to fight it, his failures in Iraq have been the most obvious. From the unwillingness to restore public order in the immediate aftermath of the invasion to Abu Ghraib to the Sunni insurgency to the current sectarian strife, the theme of the American failure has been an inability to grasp the political context of the conflict.

Even his now-famous final memo, composed two days before his resignation Nov. 8, is remarkably tone deaf to Iraqi political realities. With the government of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki coming apart at the seams and both the competence and loyalty of Iraqi security forces uncertain, Rumsfeld suggested to the president that they “begin modest withdrawals of U.S. and coalition forces” to “start taking our hands off the bicycle seat” so that “Iraqis know they have to pull up their socks, step up, and take responsibility for their country.”

Indeed, Rumsfeld seemed curiously uninterested in Iraq once the invasion was complete. Far from being the micromanager of his reputation, so many of the blunders of the initial occupation, from the failure to adopt appropriate tactics to the time bomb that became the Abu Ghraib story to not replacing senior commanders, reflect a seeming lack of attention from the defense secretary. The tone of the traffic from the Pentagon to Iraq — and Afghanistan — was not “How are you going to win?” but “When can we get out?”

Let’s be clear: In its essence, these are less failures of competence than they are failures of understanding or imagination. They did not stem from bad intelligence about weapons. They cannot be fixed by improved tactics or a larger force — although our predicament would be made immeasurably worse by a precipitate American withdrawal — or redeployment along the lines drawn by Democratic Rep. John Murtha of Pennsylvania or on a set timeline, as preferred by the incoming chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Sen. Carl Levin of Michigan. Nor can they be fixed by bureaucratic reorganization or an improvement in the interagency process. Rumsfeld’s failure has been, above all, a failure to make strategy.

At the heart of this failure is the dissonance between the strategic goal outlined by President Bush — that is, long-term political change in the Islamic world — and the Pentagon’s military strategy and, especially, its desire for “rapid, decisive” operations. A “Long War,” by definition, cannot be a blitzkrieg.

So far from challenging conventional military wisdom, Rumsfeld is better understood as an extreme exponent of the corporate culture of the professional American military. This is a culture grounded in the idea of well-defined and decisive battle, where victory goes to big battalions, big firepower and Great Captains. But this is a culture hostile to involvement in long, often inconclusive wars, where the victory is most often given to the unsung heroes who endure. Our soldiers have studied Gettysburg, Shiloh and the great clashes of the Civil War years, but less so the subsequent decades of Reconstruction.

So it is a further irony of Rumsfeld’s tenure that he has provoked a small crisis in civil-military relations. To be sure, some of the friction comes from Rumsfeld’s prickly personality and methods of leadership, described as a toxic combination of stridency and indecisiveness. But it should be no surprise that last spring’s “Revolt of the Generals” was led by soldiers and Marines frustrated by Rumsfeld’s unwillingness to sublimate his original transformation agenda to the requirements of Iraq and “the Long War.”

In the end, it has been Rumsfeld’s greatest strengths — his self-confidence, his managerial expertise and insistence on efficiency, his faith in technology, his problem-solving practicality — that have equally been his weaknesses. These are uniquely American quirks, the strengths and weaknesses of the traditional American way of war. The secretary of defense’s failures are a symptom of our approach to strategy, not the disease itself.

There is a large body of literature on what constitutes the “American way of war,” a term made famous by the historian Russell Weighley in his survey of America’s military experience from colonial to modern times. Although the central debate has been what one might call a maneuverist critique of an attritionist approach to combat, this probably represents the legacy of Vietnam and shortchanges the centuries of American experience of irregular warfare against Indian tribes. Rather, it is better to observe the American preference for “force on force” combat, a paradigm broken only in the face of defeat, by Sherman’s march to the sea or the Cherokee Trail of Tears. Transformation is an expression of the force-on-force preferences of the American military mind.

In fact, many transformation true believers have complained that Rumsfeld’s vision of radical change either wasn’t that radical or that he failed to push hard enough for the change. There’s a good deal of truth to that: Rumsfeld simply finished off the wounded in canceling the Crusader howitzer and the Comanche helicopter programs, and other efforts, such as increasing stocks of precision-guided munitions and overlaying communications networks on existing platforms, simply accelerated ongoing efforts. And some of his signal successes, such as the conversion of Trident submarines into stealthy, cruise-missile-laden “arsenal ships,” were relatively modest expenditures.

But what transformationists have always failed to grasp is how firmly they are rooted in the tradition of American war-making and its fascination with tactics and technology. Of course, these enthusiasms have served the U.S. well in that they have made American armed forces the masters of the conventional battlefield, and renewed conventional capabilities are essential as it becomes increasingly necessary to hedge against growing Chinese power and the power projection capacity of the People’s Liberation Army. But when Rumsfeld admitted in his farewell memo that “what U.S. forces are currently doing in Iraq is not working well enough or fast enough,” he expressed the shortcomings of a force still too much oriented toward firepower and strike warfare. Transformationists are always in a rush.

In focusing on the technological and tactical, the transformationists overlooked the one genuinely revolutionary change brought on by the end of the Cold War: As the sole superpower, the U.S. became the sole guarantor of security and stability. We have spent the past 15 years reacting to a variety of petty dictators set free from the constraints of the Cold War. Slobodan Milosevic and Saddam Hussein took their opportunities to see what they could get away with once the Cold War balance collapsed. The loss of the two-superpower framework has accelerated the competition in the Middle East, particularly where the ancien regime is dying, either to be supplanted by theocratic revolutionaries or genuinely representative governments.

Thus, the ultimate problem with the project of transformation has been political and strategic. The once-popular notion of a strategic pause was premised on a judgment that the central issue would be the rise of China as a new great power, a near-peer competitor. The problems of the Middle East and especially the threat of terrorism were regarded as secondary issues, at best — nothing that would prevent the U.S. military from experimenting and developing the capabilities that would deter the Chinese even from competing with American global hegemony. But the very idea of a unipolar moment precludes any strategic pause; preeminent powers can’t call time out.

And so there are good reasons to doubt the ultimate wisdom of the Long-War strategy that has evolved from the Rumsfeld years, one only recently emerging into public debates. This is the strategy of the indirect approach, defined in this instance as an effort to build partner capacity by working with militaries throughout the Islamic world — although primarily in the Islamic rim lands rather than the Arab heartland — to suppress al-Qaidalike and affiliated groups. The model for this sort of effort was the 2005 Basilan campaign in the Philippines, in which Philippine army forces worked with U.S. special operations forces and Marines to secure the island, successfully, from Abu Sayyaf fighters.

The indirect approach is the guiding logic beyond the continuing expansion of U.S. special operations forces. Some of the SOF expansion is intended to increase the capacity to conduct the kind of commando raids and strikes to capture or kill Osama bin Laden and other high-value terrorist targets, the hyper-transformational approach now favored. But the growth of Army Special Forces and similar units reflects a new emphasis on unconventional warfare and foreign internal defense missions — ideas also recently adopted by the larger Army and Marine Corps — that could provide a long-term strategic logic missing heretofore.

At the same time, the indirect-approach plan is clearly motivated by the desire never to repeat the Iraq experience, to explain the failures there as an anomaly, mistakes never to be made again. It would also isolate the virus of irregular warfare to the special operations community, permitting the conventional forces to return to their more comfortable business of preparing for rapid, decisive, high-technology combat. And it would give the U.S. the illusion that it had a strategy to deal with the problems of the Middle East and the Islamic world. “The Long War” will, on occasion and as in Iraq, demand large campaigns; small wars can be big in scope.

Rumsfeld went to war in Iraq with the Army and the strategy he had; there was no alternative. But he leaves office and leaves the U.S. with the same Army and essentially the same strategy; therein lies the tragedy. However, the tragedy is not his alone but a tragic fault in the preferred American way of war. AFJ