Judging Rumsfeld

Mackubin T. Owens

January 1, 2005

Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld has taken a serious beating recently, both in the media and the halls of Congress. His critics have accused him of everything from “insensitivity toward the troops” to being personally responsible for perceived failures in Iraq.

For Democrats, Rumsfeld is a useful surrogate for President Bush. The latter may have won the election handily but Democrats can still damage him by “getting” the architect of the hated war in Iraq. But Rumsfeld has his critics on the right as well. Senators John McCain and Chuck Hagel have been highly critical of the secretary. So has my good friend, Bill Kristol, editor of The Weekly Standard.

Of course, Donald Rumsfeld has ruffled feathers from the very beginning of his tenure as secretary of Defense. He has been called a “takedown artist” and a “control freak” who exhibits little patience with the niceties of military protocol. His critics say he thinks nothing of insulting general officers and running roughshod over those with whom he disagrees. Anti-Rumsfeld leaks to the press have been unprecedented during his time as secretary. For four years, hardly a week has gone by without a story sourced by anonymous officers characterizing Rumsfeld as the reincarnation of Robert Strange McNamara or trashing him in some other way.

The main source of the problem is Rumsfeld’s commitment to the President’s agenda of “transforming” the U.S. military—reshaping it from a heavy, industrial-age force designed to fight the USSR during the Cold War to a more agile, information-age force capable of defeating future adversaries anywhere in the world. While all the services have undertaken transformation policies, Rumsfeld’s demand for more rapid change—and a particular model of transformation—has put him at odds with the uniformed military, especially the U.S. Army.

Of all the services, the Army continues to face the greatest problems adapting to the post-Cold War security environment. These problems have to do with the nature of strategic geography. To protect its worldwide interests, the United States must be able to project power globally. But given its geographical position, the United States can project power only by overcoming what the former commandant of the Marine Corps, General Charles Krulak, has called the “tyranny of distance.” The tyranny of distance creates a dilemma for ground forces—a tradeoff between rapid strategic deployability on one hand, and lethality, sustainability, tactical mobility, and self-protection on the other. Thus an airborne unit can deploy more quickly than any other ground force, but it lacks the killing power and sustainability necessary to win once it gets on the ground. By contrast, an armored unit possesses the latter characteristics, but takes a long time to get into the theater of war.

To its credit, the Army recognized that it needed to effect a substantial transformation in order to remain strategically relevant. Former Army Chief of Staff Gen. Eric Shinseki pushed hard to transform his service to a more adaptable, more easily deployable force capable of a greater range of missions than the Army of a decade ago. Shinseki’s transformation strategy called for replacing difficult-to-deploy heavy forces with medium-weight, wheel-mobile combat brigades supported by an advanced gun system.

But Rumsfeld argued that the Army’s plan would take too long and was not sufficiently transformational. Gen. Shinseki’s successor as Army chief of staff, Gen. Peter Schoomaker, whom Rumsfeld called out of retirement to assume the post, has begun to implement a vision far more in keeping with that of the Secretary.

But he and Rumsfeld have faced fierce resistance from the Army establishment. Before the Iraq war, Rumsfeld’s one victory over that establishment was the cancellation of the Army’s Crusader, an artillery system Rumsfeld disparaged as too big and bulky for the sort of mobile, rapidly deployable military he envisioned for the future.

Many of the same Army generals (active and retired) who had fought Rumsfeld on the Crusader and other issues were openly critical of his war plan for Iraq, arguing that it called for too few troops and tanks. Thus in the public mind, Rumsfeld’s commitment to Army transformation came to be seen as the reason the Army did not deploy enough troops to Iraq. According to this view, the Army is the bill payer for Rumsfeld’s policy of transforming the U.S. military to a smaller, high-tech, information-based force.

The criticisms of Rumsfeld conflate a number of different elements that must be separated if we are to rationally assess his performance as secretary of Defense. The three most important elements are the meaning of transformation, the war in Iraq, and civil-military relations.


There are those in the Pentagon who subscribe to a dangerous understanding of transformation: that future U.S. military power will be based less on ground forces and more on precision strikes delivered by air or space assets, perhaps coordinated and directed by a handful of special-operations forces (SOF) soldiers. This assumption smacks of a pair of heresies that periodically afflict U.S. defense planners.

The first is “strategic monism,” the belief that the U.S. should invest in a single, strategically decisive capability. The “air power can do it all” argument is a form of strategic monism. This version of strategic monism maintains that air power (and, increasingly, space power) is not only the necessary but also the sufficient cause of strategic success in conflict. In other words, air and space power are capable of achieving decisive victory independently of other arms.

The strongest argument against the current version of strategic monism is that it has been tried before and found wanting. During the Eisenhower administration of the 1950s, U.S. strategy and force structure were based on the “New Look,” the centerpiece of which was long-range strategic air power. This focus on strategic bombing to the exclusion of other capabilities resulted in strategic inflexibility: The U.S. largely lacked the ability to respond to threats at the lower end of the spectrum of conflict.

The “New Look” demonstrated that although air power is critical to both deterrence and war-fighting, it lacks nuance. Air power is either on or off. Thus, its threatened use in situations involving less than vital interests lacks credibility. It is therefore not always politically useful. During the “New Look” era, adversaries were able to develop “asymmetric” responses to the dominant nuclear capability of the U.S., e.g. “peoples’ wars” and “wars of national liberation.” The inability of the U.S. to respond to such threats led to the replacement of the “New Look” by the strategy of “Flexible Response” in the 1960s.

The second heresy might be called “technophilia.” The technophiles contend that emerging technologies, especially information technologies, have so completely changed the nature of warfare that many of the old verities no longer hold true. The technophiles argue that the U.S. must do what is necessary to ensure its dominance in military technology even if it means accepting a substantially reduced force structure.

One does not have to denigrate the importance of air power or technology to believe that the exclusive reliance on air power or technology at the expense of a robust, balanced force structure is to invite strategic failure at some time in the future. This is not the sterile “airpower uber alles” vs. “boots on the ground” argument. The fact is that air and ground forces are like the blades of a pair of scissors—both blades are necessary if the scissors are to cut.

The fundamental flaw characterizing both the strategic monist and the technophile is the certainty that one can predict the future. But, the future isn’t knowable. Those who predicted that the highly touted campaign of “shock and awe” would lead to a rapid Coalition victory were wrong. Baghdad fell quickly and Saddam was deposed, but an adaptable enemy found an “asymmetric” response to U.S. military power. Reports of the death of land power were premature, to say the least. As Loren Thomson of the Lexington Institute observed, “any concept of transformation that proposes sweeping programmatic changes based on a presumed understanding of future challenges is likely to go wrong. There are simply too many possible threats, and the very act of preparing for some reduces the likelihood that those are the ones we will face.”

No matter what Rumsfeld’s personal preferences may be (I do not believe he is a technophile, although there are a number of technophiles on his staff), transformation in practice has not been an “all or nothing” proposition. In Rumsfeld’s Pentagon, transformation has manifested itself as an organizational response to the possibility that revolutionary, discontinuous changes in warfare are occurring. But the war in Iraq illustrates that it is not necessary to replace the entire existing force with entirely new systems and force structures. Transformation in practice has meant combining “legacy” weapon systems and emerging systems to enhance the efficiency and effectiveness of U.S. forces. One example of this is the marriage of “legacy” airframes to a high-tech bomb-guidance kit to make the Joint Direct Attack Munition (JDAM), which permits astoundingly accurate high-level bombing. Another is the “networking” of existing forces, which vastly increases the speed of command, thereby compressing operational-cycle rates.


It is interesting to note that the basis for criticizing the Iraq war plan has changed from the spring of 2003 to the present. Initially, critics charged that the force was too small to topple Saddam and capture Baghdad. Of course, we now know that that there were enough troops to take Baghdad. Our error was to assume that Baghdad was the Iraqi “center of gravity.” Instead, as we now know, Baghdad constituted the “culminating point” of the Coalition offensive, which had to pause before continuing into the Sunni triangle. It now seems clear that this pause gave the insurgents an opportunity to regroup and begin a guerrilla war.

In criticizing the Iraq war plan and its execution, the naysayers were demanding something that is rarely achieved in wartime: a linear progression from the initial concept of the war to the seamless execution of the strategy resulting in a clear victory. I challenge the critics to provide examples from history in which such an outcome prevailed. War is a hopelessly messy thing, and rarely goes as planned.

One thing that did not go according to plan was Turkey’s decision not to permit the opening of a northern front with the Fourth Infantry Division. This decision was significant, not because the unit was necessary to topple Saddam, but because an armor unit smashing through the Sunni Triangle while the conventional war was still underway would likely have convinced the population of the region that they had been defeated. But Turkey’s decision is just one more example of the vicissitudes that arise from the nature of war—that it takes place in a realm of chance and uncertainty.

Once Baghdad fell, the criticism of Rumsfeld evolved: Now, said the Secretary’s detractors, the force employed in the war was too small to stabilize the situation after the capture of Baghdad. The Secretary, say the critics, did not foresee the emergence of a guerrilla war.

But there is little evidence that his critics foresaw the kind of guerrilla war that has raged for the last few months. Indeed, Tom Ricks reports in the December 25 Washington Post that Maj. Isaiah Wilson III, who served as an official historian of the campaign and later as a war planner in Iraq, recently placed the blame squarely on the Army. Ricks writes:

Many in the Army have blamed Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and other top Pentagon civilians for the unexpectedly difficult occupation of Iraq, but Wilson reserves his toughest criticism for Army commanders who, he concludes, failed to grasp the strategic situation in Iraq and so not did not plan properly for victory. He concludes that those who planned the war suffered from “stunted learning and a reluctance to adapt.”

Army commanders still misunderstand the strategic problem they face and therefore are still pursuing a flawed approach, writes Wilson, who is scheduled to teach at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point next year. “Plainly stated, the ’western coalition’ failed, and continues to fail, to see Operation Iraqi Freedom in its fullness,” he asserts.

“Reluctance in even defining the situation… is perhaps the most telling indicator of a collective cognitive dissidence on part of the U.S. Army to recognize a war of rebellion, a people’s war, even when they were fighting it,” he comments.

This applies as well to the charge that the Pentagon has shortchanged the troops in Iraq, e.g. by failing to provide them with armored “humvees.” Here again recent budget submissions by the Army indicate that its priority, as is usually the case with the uniformed services, was to acquire “big ticket” items. It was only after the threat became apparent that the Army began to push for supplemental spending to “up-armor” the utility vehicles.


In his remarkable book, Armed Servants, Duke political scientist Peter Feaver uses “agency theory” to analyze U.S. civil-military relations. Agency theory was originally developed by economists to analyze the relations between a principal and an agent, to whom the principal delegates authority. The problem that agency theory seeks to analyze is this: Given different incentives, how does a principal ensure that the agent is doing what the principal want him to do? Is the agent “working” or “shirking”?

The major question for the principal is the extent to which he will monitor the agent. Will monitoring be intrusive or non-intrusive? This decision is affected by the cost of monitoring. The higher the cost of monitoring, the less intrusive the monitoring is likely to be.

The agent’s incentives for working or shirking are affected by the likelihood that his shirking will be detected by the principal and that he will then be punished for it. The less intrusive the principal’s monitoring, the less likely the agent’s shirking will be detected.

In applying agency theory to civil-military relations, Feaver acknowledges the unsuitability of the term “shirking” when describing the action of the military agent when it pursues its own preference rather than those of the civilian principal. But he contends that the alternatives are even less suitable.

Feaver argues that shirking by the military takes many forms. The most obvious form is disobedience, but it also includes foot dragging and leaks to the press designed to undercut policy or individual policy-makers. Shirking as foot-dragging provides an important bureaucratic context for Rumsfeld’s decision to recommend invading Iraq when he did, rejecting the call for a larger initial ground force or to wait for the Fourth Infantry Division to redeploy to the south after Turkey refused to permit the opening of a northern front.

Rumsfeld believed that civilian control of the military had eroded during the Clinton administration: If a service didn’t want to do something—as in the Balkans in the 1990s—it would simply overstate the force requirements. Accordingly, the Secretary and others in the Pentagon interpreted the Army’s call for a larger force as one more example of what they perceived as foot dragging.

It is clear that Rumsfeld is guilty of errors of judgment regarding both transformation and the conduct of the Iraq war. With regard to the former, his “business” approach to transformation is potentially risky. As Fred Kagan has observed, Rumsfeld’s approach stresses an economic concept of efficiency at the expense of military and political effectiveness. But war is far more than a mere targeting drill. As the Iraq war has demonstrated, the destruction of the “target set” and the resulting military success does not translate automatically into the achievement of the political goals for which the war was fought in the first place. But the U.S. military does need to transform and, as suggested above, the actual practice of transformation in the Rumsfeld Pentagon has been flexible and adaptive, not doctrinaire.

With regard to the Iraq war, Rumsfeld’s original position regarding the Iraq war was much more optimistic than the facts on the ground have warranted. But he has eventually acknowledged changes in the character of the war and adapted to them. In addition, Rumsfeld’s critics have been no more prescient than he. We should not be surprised. Again, as Clausewitz reminds us, war takes place in the realm of chance and uncertainty.

When it comes to civil-military relations, Rumsfeld’s attempt to reassert civilian control of the military is certainly proper, but there is a real danger that the cost of Rumsfeld’s approach will be a dispirited and demoralized uniformed military. Right now, the perception among officers is that Rumsfeld wants to surround himself with “yes-men” and that dissent will not be tolerated. This is a recipe for disaster.

As I wrote on National Review Online in July, Rumsfeld needs to take a cue from Abraham Lincoln, Winston Churchill, and other great military leaders of democracies. By all means, he should challenge, cajole, probe, and question his uniformed military—and then challenge them again. But he should also encourage true dialogue, in the hope of achieving a dynamic, creative tension within the Pentagon on everything from war-fighting to transformation. This is the path to healthy civil-military relations—and to true civilian control of the military.

Mackubin T. Owens is an associate dean of academics and professor of national security affairs at the Naval War College in Newport, R.I. He led a Marine rifle platoon in Vietnam in 1968-69.