Rumsfeld and His Critics

Mackubin T. Owens

May 1, 2006

Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld has taken a serious beating recently. His critics, including several retired Army and Marine Corps generals, have accused him, in essence, of being personally responsible for perceived failures in Iraq. His critics charge that he ignored military advice and insisted on a plan for Iraq that employed too small of a force, that he failed to adapt to new circumstances once things began to go wrong, that he failed to foresee the insurgency that now rages, and that he ignored the need to prepare for post-conflict stability operations.

The first thing to realize is that disagreements between civilians and soldiers about the conduct of a war are not uncommon in American history. But the critics’ charges against Rumsfeld are based on two false premises: (1) in general—that the military, is always right when it comes to military affairs; and (2) in particular, that the things Rumsfeld got wrong in Iraq, the military got right.

The historical record illustrates that the judgment of soldiers is not always on the money. Abraham Lincoln constantly prodded George McClellan to take the offensive in Virginia in 1862; McClellan just as constantly whined about insufficient forces. Despite the image of civil-military comity during World War II, there were many differences between Franklin Roosevelt and his military advisers. George Marshall, the greatest soldier-statesman since Washington, opposed arms shipments to Great Britain in 1940 and argued for a cross-channel invasion before the United States was ready. History has vindicated both Lincoln and Roosevelt.

Many are inclined to blame American defeat in Vietnam on civilians. But the U.S. operational approach in Vietnam was the creature of the uniformed military. The conventional wisdom today is that the operational strategy of General William Westmoreland emphasizing attrition of the Peoples’ Army of Vietnam (PAVN) forces in a “war of the big battalions”—sweeps through remote jungle areas in an effort to fix and destroy the enemy with superior fire power–was counterproductive. By the time Westmoreland’s successor could adopt a more fruitful approach, it was too late.

During the planning for Operation Desert Storm in late 1990 and early 1991, Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf, commander of U.S. Central Command presented a plan calling for a frontal assault against Iraqi positions in southern Kuwait followed by a drive toward Kuwait City. The problem was that this plan was unlikely to achieve the foremost military objective of the ground war: the destruction of the three divisions of Saddam’s Republican Guard. The civilian leadership rejected the early war plan presented by CENTCOM and ordered a return to the drawing board. The revised plan was far more imaginative and effective.

While Rumsfeld made some critical mistakes, it is clear that no one did better than when it came to predicting what would transpire. Did Rumsfeld foresee the insurgency and the shift from conventional to guerilla war? No, but neither did his critics in the uniformed services.

Last year, Tom Ricks of the Washington Post publicized a study by Maj. Isaiah Wilson III, who served as an official historian of the Iraq campaign and later as a war planner in Iraq. Wilson charged that Army commanders had failed to grasp the strategic situation in Iraq and were still pursuing a flawed approach. “Plainly stated, the ’western coalition’ failed, and continues to fail, to see Operation Iraqi Freedom in its fullness.… 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.”

How about the charge that Rumsfeld’s Pentagon has shortchanged the troops in Iraq, by failing to provide them with armored humvees? A review of Army budget submissions makes it clear that the service’s priority, as is usually the case with the uniformed services, was to acquire “big ticket” items. It was only after the insurgency and the IED threat became apparent that the Army began to push for supplemental spending to “up-armor” the utility vehicles.

It is true that Rumsfeld downplayed the need to prepare for post-conflict stability operations, but in this he was merely ratifying the preferences of the uniformed military. When it comes to post-conflict stability operations, the real villain is the Weinberger-Powell Doctrine, a set of principles long internalized by the U.S. military that emphasizes the requirement for an “exit strategy.” But if generals are thinking about an exit strategy they are not thinking about “war termination”—how to convert military success into political success. This cultural aversion to conducting stability operations is reflected by the fact that operational planning for Operation Iraqi Freedom took 18 months while planning for postwar stabilization began half-heartedly only a couple of months before the invasion.

In retrospect, it is easy to criticize Rumsfeld for pushing the CENTCOM commander, Gen. Tommy Franks, to develop a plan based on a smaller force than the one called for in earlier plans”—as well as for his interference with the Time-Phased Force and Deployment List (TPFDL) that lays out the schedule of forces deploying to a theater of war. But hindsight is always 20-20, permitting us to judge another’s actions on the basis of what we know now, not what we knew then. Thus the consequences of the chosen path–to attack earlier with a smaller force”—are visible to us in retrospect while the very real risks associated with an alternative option”—e.g. take the time to build up a larger force, perhaps losing the opportunity to achieve surprise”—remain provisional.

The debate over the size of the invasion force must also be understood in the context of civil-military relations. The fact is that Rumsfeld believed that civilian control of the military had eroded during the Clinton administration. If the Army didn’t want to do something”—as in the Balkans in the 1990s”—it would simply overstate the force requirements: “The answer is 350,000 soldiers. What’s the question?”

Accordingly, Rumsfeld was inclined to interpret the Army’s call for a larger force to invade Iraq as just one more example of what he perceived as foot dragging. In retrospect, Rumsfeld’s decision not to deploy the 1st Cavalry Division was a mistake, but again he had come to believe that the TPFDL, like the “two major theater war” planning metric, had become little more than a bureaucratic tool that the services used to protect their shares of the defense budget.

Retrospective criticism is easy. Rumsfeld’s detractors would be much more credible if they could point to an instance in which their ability to discern the future was substantially superior to that of the man they have attacked.

Mackubin T. Owens is an adjunct fellow of the Ashbrook Center and a professor of national security at the Naval War