Rumsfeld’s Folly

How the war in Iraq undermined the war on terror.

In the week since Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld’s Oct. 16 memo appeared in USA Today, the press squall has churned mostly around the doubts it expresses about the prosecution of the war on terror and the way those doubts contradict the administration’s public statements. But the memo is significant for an entirely different reason. It opens a window onto the Bush team’s flawed thinking about the war on terror.

Two key passages stand out: First, Rumsfeld wonders, “Does the US need to fashion a broad, integrated plan to stop the next generation of terrorists? The US is putting relatively little effort into a long-range plan, but we are putting a great deal of effort into trying to stop terrorists.” Then, later, he asks, “Are we capturing, killing or deterring more terrorists every day than the madrassas and the radical clerics are recruiting, training and deploying against us?”

As foreign fighters pour into Iraq to attack U.S. troops and undermine the occupation, the questions are long overdue. They suggest that a top official is beginning to recognize what others outside and inside government have been arguing since Sept. 11, 2001: The United States faces an insurgency that is not tied to one piece of Middle East real estate or to one rogue state.

Instead, it is a global fight with lots of ideological fuel to burn. Rumsfeld observes that we have no “metrics” for judging how well we are doing in the larger war on terror. Surely a key issue is whose ideas are gaining ground. When I worked in the government, analysts closely followed the Friday sermons and the public statements of Muslim clerics. Review some recent ones, such as those posted at, and you can see preachers who are paid by the state, usually counted on for moderation, delivering pronouncements that approach Osama Bin Laden’s in spirit, depicting America as the head of world infidelity whose presence in Iraq justifies jihad. Rumsfeld might also consider polling data, such as the June results from the Pew Global Attitudes Project, which shows majorities in seven of eight Muslim nations surveyed believing their countries are militarily threatened by the United States—again, much as Bin Laden argues.

There is, in fact, overwhelming evidence that the radicalization of the Muslim world is deepening. That means more sympathizers, more fund raising, and more recruits for the jihadist camp. On the tactical side of the war on terror, counting the terrorists captured or killed, as the administration frequently does, is a somewhat useful approach—and the record is better than anyone could have predicted two years ago. But strategically, we’re slipping.

Rumsfeld’s memo, informal as it is, also says much about the basic assumptions of the Bush foreign policy team. It takes for granted that stopping the next generation of terrorists is the job of the Pentagon and, secondarily, the CIA. Is a new organization needed, Rumsfeld asks, to integrate efforts better? Unmentioned is the existing institution that ought to play the lead role in dealing with the long-term problem of radical Islam and terror: the State Department.

The military played a vital part in toppling the Taliban in Afghanistan, the world’s first terrorist-sponsored state, and special operations forces continue to hunt for terrorists in South Asia. The Pentagon will be called on again if, for example, a training camp is found and targeted for destruction. But its role in dealing with the war on terror has ballooned far beyond what is justified—a consequence of construing the war on Iraq as part of the war on terror. Fighting terrorism requires intelligence and law enforcement agencies to do the tactical work of disrupting conspiracies and dismantling terrorist organizations. Over the long term, though, any strategy to confront radical Islam must be principally a diplomatic one. You don’t win hearts and minds through military occupation, and there are too many countries where extremism is on the rise. Iraq seems to be stretching our resources well enough already.

The tools of such a strategy are programs to promote the gradual development of democracy in the Muslim world because only democracy can contain the strains these societies are experiencing and show that radical Islamists do not have the solution for improving the lot of ordinary Muslims. There needs to be support for economic liberalization in the Muslim world and educational reform to deal with the religious schools that are factories for extremists. Tremendous diplomatic pressure will be required to end the incitement, the anti-Americanism and anti-Semitism that fills the press and official rhetoric and lays the ground for jihadist recruitment and violence. This, under the best of circumstances, would be a tough road, and the effort would last decades. But given the right approach, it could work. It would require reinvigorating a Middle East peace process and sticking with it, the ticket of admission to being taken seriously in the Muslim world. Finally, it requires signing up allies because the United States is viewed as too toxic a presence for most Muslims.

Was there ever a chance to pursue such a strategy? Absolutely. After Sept. 11 and before the invasion of Iraq, there was a moment of possibility. In December 2002, the State Department unveiled its Middle East Partnership Initiative, a basket of projects to encourage democratization in the Muslim world. Then-director of Policy Planning, Richard Haass, publicly regretted the fact that “successive U.S. administrations, Republican and Democratic alike, have not made democratization a sufficient priority.” Secretary of State Colin Powell threw his weight behind the effort, the underlying idea of which was that the time has passed when America could look away from what goes on within the autocratic, stunted states that have become incubators of terrorism. There was not much money there—the program now gets about $100 million, and Arab governments hated it. (The Egyptian foreign minister called it “the epitome of idiocy,” a sure sign of a good idea.) But it dovetailed with other efforts to revitalize American diplomacy, such as the multibillion dollar Millennium Challenge Account to reduce poverty and a relatively well-funded HIV/AIDs effort. These efforts were justified as part of a broader effort to deal with the failed states where terrorist groups find sanctuary.

These policies, together with a lot of pressure and money to buy cooperation in the region, might have provided the “bold measures” Rumsfeld desires. But since the invasion and occupation of Iraq, this has become the road not taken. The $87 billion package for the military and reconstruction in Iraq is certain to crowd out such efforts, which might have constituted Powell’s biggest achievement.

The $20 billion earmarked for Iraqi reconstruction represents just a little less than the last decade’s average cost of funding the State Department for a year. To cover this budget-buster, Republicans in Congress, with apparent White House support, are looking for offsetting funding cuts, and the money for the Millennium Challenge and the HIV/AIDs initiative may be reduced sharply—possibly by billions. The Middle East Partnership Initiative will not disappear because it is run by a State Department official who happens to be Vice President Cheney’s daughter. But it also will not grow into the “generational commitment” to change in the Middle East that Condoleezza Rice has called for.

Even if these programs are kept at decent funding levels, the administration will be hard-pressed to produce progress in the region. Not only is America’s money tied up in Iraq, so is its diplomatic capital. Keeping “moderate” Muslim regimes from denouncing the occupation from every rooftop requires all the energy the State Department has; attempts to push judicial reform or grass-roots political initiatives will not get a second hearing from third secretaries in any government ministries.

The Bush administration chose its moment of opportunity for confronting Iraq, not radical Islam and terror. So now we are stuck with an Iraq policy, not a foreign policy for dealing with a global challenge—and for a hundred well-known reasons, we cannot afford to let Iraq fail. Rumsfeld asks in his memo whether we are now in a situation in the war on terror in which “the harder we work, the behinder we get?”

The answer is yes.