War Stories

Failing To Recognize Failure

Why does the president still trust Rumsfeld’s judgment?

On Dec. 15, 1993, not quite a year into President Bill Clinton’s first term, his secretary of defense, Les Aspin, announced that he would resign. Two months earlier, 18 U.S. Rangers had died, some of them brutally, in the disastrous “Black Hawk Down” raid on Mogadishu. A month before that, the Rangers’ commander in Somalia had asked the Pentagon for armored vehicles. Aspin rejected the request. In the raid’s aftermath, many blamed Aspin’s denial for the Americans’ deaths.

Some controversy remains over whether Aspin—who died a year and a half later from heart problems at age 56—deserved to be the fall guy; but it’s an irrelevant debate. The key point is that Aspin lost the president’s confidence. Once that happens, for whatever reason, the Cabinet officer in question needs to be replaced.

The key question about the much-discussed survival of Donald Rumsfeld, the current secretary of defense, is not so much whether he should stay or go, but rather why President George W. Bush still has confidence in his judgment.

In this light, the pertinent issue about the prison tortures at Abu Ghraib is not Rumsfeld’s place in the chain of command; it’s the fact that he knew, or should have known, about the tortures and the photographs—not just from Gen. Taguba’s report but much earlier from the briefings by the International Committee of the Red Cross—and, apparently, didn’t tell the president. In short, he failed at one of his primary duties—to cull the thousands of scraps of information that come into the Pentagon every day for the nuggets of data that the president needs to know. His failure to alert Bush of this nugget has meant a huge cost in U.S. credibility just at the moment—less than two months before the transfer of sovereignty to Iraq—when our credibility is most vital. Yet Bush continues to trust that Rumsfeld will keep him properly apprised in the future, even tells him in public that he’s doing a “superb” job.

The puzzle goes well beyond Abu Ghraib. In fact, one could imagine some presidents using the current crisis as an opportunity to can Rumsfeld for the many transgressions he’s committed over the past couple of years—errors of judgment that have caused far more deaths than occurred in Mogadishu.

Chief among these errors, of course, was his decision to overrule the generals’ recommendations on how many troops to send to Iraq. Rumsfeld took a creative gamble on this one. Creativity isn’t a bad quality for a secretary of defense, especially when dealing with a calcified bureaucracy like the U.S. Army’s. Rumsfeld had a vision of warfare that clashed with the Army’s most closely vested interests—a vision of “military transformation,” which relied on speed over mass, “smart bombs” over artillery, joint operations over interservice rivalry. In the battlefield phase of this war and of the war in Afghanistan, Rumsfeld turned out to be right. But in the next, decisive phase—actually winning the war, accomplishing its broad objectives—his vision proved terribly inadequate. His commanders didn’t have enough troops to occupy, secure, and stabilize either country. Secretaries of defense have the right to reject their generals’ advice; that’s what civilian leadership is about; as Eliot Cohen notes in his book Supreme Command, the practice has an honorable history. But when it leads to military disaster, the civilian secretary who has taken the reins must also take real responsibility. More to the point here, presidents who rely on such a secretary—and who come to bear the cost of his choices—usually conclude that he’s no longer trustworthy and that he needs to go before he inspires further disasters.

In the course of committing this strategic error, Rumsfeld made many tactical misjudgments. He willfully alienated allies whose assistance, many warned him, would be necessary for a successful occupation. He arrogantly excluded officials from other federal departments—especially State and USAID—who knew much more than he did about reconstruction in general and Iraqi society in particular. He ordered (or at least accepted the order—we don’t yet know who made the decision) the dismantling of the Iraqi army, a move that created a massive power vacuum and put tens of thousands of armed, angry, unemployed citizens on the streets. He believed that Ahmad Chalabi, an exile who had no political base in Iraq, would readily be accepted as the country’s new leader—and, on that basis, didn’t think that much “postwar” planning would be necessary. Far more unforgivable (after all, everybody’s wrong sometimes), Rumsfeld devised no backup plan in case his belief proved mistaken (as it did).

All these mistakes have been recited many times before. The odd thing about the long list, viewed in the context of Abu Ghraib, is that Bush gave Rummy a pass for the whole lot. One of the president’s jobs is to relieve the nation of Cabinet officers who make consistently bad decisions, especially bad decisions that swell the ranks of our casualties and diminish our standing in the world. The responsibility, to use a much-tarnished word, lies not with Rumsfeld but with Bush.