It remains unclear whether Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld finally stepped down because he mismanaged the war on terrorism, failed in his efforts to transform the Pentagon, or became the scapegoat for the Republicans’ loss of the House. However, understanding Rumsfeld’s failures is the key to moving forward, so it’s useful to examine a few of his biggest ones.
Iraq dominates the list of Rumsfeld errors because of the sheer enormity of his strategic mistakes. Indeed, his Iraq blunders should have cost him his job long before the 2006 midterm elections. From tinkering with troop deployments in 2002 and 2003, which ensured there were too few troops from the start, to micromanaging operations with his famed “8,000 mile screwdriver,” to pushing for the disastrous twin policies of de-Baathification and disbandment for the Iraqi army, Rumsfeld’s failures transformed the Iraq war from a difficult enterprise into an unwinnable one. Likewise, in Afghanistan, missteps by the Pentagon have left America’s victory there unconsummated. Make no mistake: These were not tactical failures, made by subordinate military officers. Rather, these were strategic errors of epic proportions that no amount of good soldiering could undo. Blame for these strategic missteps lies properly with the secretary of defense and his senior generals, and, ultimately, with the White House.
Iraq is now in a state beyond civil war. The victory that was possible in 2003 is not possible in 2006. Yet, despite losing the war there, no senior officers or civilian leaders have been held accountable—until now. One general, Ricardo Sanchez, watched his promotion chances evaporate because of Abu Ghraib and his failure to bring the insurgency to heel. But his case has been the exception to the pattern in which general officers are promoted into the upper stratosphere of the military without regard to their performance at war. America didn’t always treat its generals this way; Lincoln famously sacked many of his field commanders, and generals often lost their jobs during World War II after losing battles. Perhaps Rumsfeld’s departure signals a new willingness to hold senior officials accountable for the failures at their level.
Beyond Iraq, it is clear that Rumsfeld’s Pentagon failed to develop a strategy to win in the larger war on terrorism. In a leaked memo, Rumsfeld asked his staff in October 2003 if we had metrics to know whether we were winning or losing the war, along with a number of other fundamental questions of strategy. The problem is that none of these questions have been resolved now, some five years after the start of the war with al-Qaida. Strategy is the province of defense secretaries and generals. Their most important job is to answer such questions as why we are fighting and how we will align national resources to accomplish that mission. The Rumsfeld Pentagon failed to articulate a successful strategic vision for the war. Consequently, America’s wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, the Philippines, and East Africa since Sept. 11 have lacked strategic coherence. There is no sense that the sum of these small victories would equal a larger victory over al-Qaida or terrorism generally.
Indeed, Rumsfeld’s dominance of the cabinet and the Bush administration may have guaranteed that America chose the entirely wrong paradigm for the past five years. Notwithstanding the spectacular violence of the Sept. 11 attacks, America might have done better had it not chosen a war paradigm to fight terrorism and instead chosen to employ a comprehensive array of diplomatic, intelligence, military, and law enforcement approaches. Doing so might have encouraged more of our allies to stand by our side. It might also have put America on a better footing to sustain its efforts for what promises to be a generational struggle against terrorism.
When Rumsfeld took office in 2001, he swept in with promises to transform America’s military—to move from the industrial age to the information age by revolutionizing both America’s military hardware and the way it does business. He presented himself as a successful CEO who would hammer the Pentagon’s notoriously recalcitrant bureaucracy into shape. Yet, despite all his rhetoric, it’s not clear that he actually accomplished much in this area. The Rumsfeld defense budgets allocated more money to areas that he prioritized, such as missile defense and sophisticated systems like the Joint Strike Fighter and Future Combat Systems, but these were marginal changes from the 1990s, consistent with the ways the services were moving already. Despite his best efforts, Rumsfeld never managed to fundamentally change the way the Pentagon does business, partly because he ran into a solid wall of opposition from the military establishment, defense contractors, and Congress.
In battling these foes and others, Rumsfeld didn’t just lose the fight, he also did a great deal of damage to the military and to the country. Thanks to Bob Woodward, we now know a few more salacious details about his spats with senior military leaders—such as the way he emasculated former Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Richard Myers. We also know how he handpicked officers for key positions in order to ensure that every senior general or admiral was a Rumsfeld company man, a policy that had a tremendously deleterious and narrowing effect on the kind of military advice and dissent flowing into the office of the secretary of defense. His office famously undercut and eventually sacked Gen. Eric Shinseki after his testimony to Congress stating that Iraq would take a “few hundred thousand” troops to secure, although to this day the Rumsfeld press machine vigorously insists that Shinseki simply left when his term expired. This move, more than any other, crystallized the tension between Rumsfeld and the generals and telegraphed quite clearly that loyalty was more prized than intellectual honesty. That so few generals have spoken out since then is proof of how effective this message was. Only those who have retired, and the military establishment’s press, feel they can criticize the defense secretary’s policies in public.
War is too important to be left to the generals, as French Prime Minister George Clemenceau said during World War I. Rumsfeld was right to insist on civilian control of the military. But war is too important—and too complex—to be left to the politicians, as well. As historian Eliot Cohen writes in his brilliant study Supreme Command, the best strategies emerge when generals and political leaders find a way to effectively share military power. With his rough style, abrasive personality, and legendary skill as a bureaucratic infighter, Rumsfeld ensured that this would never occur in his Pentagon, much to the detriment of America and its war on terrorism.
Civil-military relations will recover from the Rumsfeld era, just as they recovered from Vietnam, but the damage to our war effort has been done. Defense secretary-designate Robert Gates will need to work quickly to limit the damage and find a way forward through the rubble of America’s flawed policies of the past six years. Although the future in Iraq and Afghanistan looks bleak, all is not yet lost. If he listens to the advice of his generals, and is willing to consider and implement unconventional options, then Gates may manage to pull an imperfect victory from the jaws of defeat. But time is short.