Rumsfeld’s Memo

David Tucker

October 1, 2003

USA Today has published a remarkable memorandum from Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld on the war on terrorism. The newspaper or whoever leaked it to USA Today may think publishing the memo will harm Rumsfeld or the Bush administration. The paper’s headline on its accompanying article is “A Grim Outlook.” The article itself says the memo contradicts “upbeat” accounts of the war on terror by Rumsfeld and the administration. But this is exactly the opposite of what the memo shows. In fact, the memo is a cause for optimism about the war.

The memo to Rumsfeld’s principal advisors opens with a series of questions. Are we winning or losing the war on terrorism? Is the Department of Defense changing fast enough to meet the new security requirements? Can a big institution change fast enough? Rumsfeld then offers a review of the record since September 11. He notes mixed results with al Qaeda, reasonable progress in capturing or killing the top 55 Iraqis from the old regime, slower progress with the leaders of the Taliban, and little progress because we are just getting started with Ansar al–Islam, a terrorist organization affiliated with al Qaeda that had bases in the Kurdish areas of Iraq. Secretary Rumsfeld then proceeds to ask another series of questions that address the details and consequences of the questions with which he opened his memo.

Even critics of the war on terrorism would probably agree that Rumsfeld is cautious in assessing what we have accomplished so far. He could have claimed more. That he does not, shows that that the purpose of the memo, as his spokesman claimed, is to push and prod his subordinates. By claiming more, he might make them relax. Instead, he is pushing them to do even better.

This is the first reason why this memo is good news. It shows, if we needed further proof, that Rumsfeld is not prone to complacency. More important than not being complacent, Rumsfeld shows himself in this memo to understand the important issues. He asks all the right questions. He understands that the Defense Department, like all military organizations, is not perfectly aligned with the demands of a war on terrorism. He asks if the Department of Defense can change to align itself to fight this war. Importantly, he also asks if it should. In other words, if Defense is not the organization to fight the war on terrorism, should we keep it focused on what it does best, fight and defeat other military organizations, and develop a new organization to fight the war on terrorism? After posing these fundamental questions, Rumsfeld asks another series of questions that push at the boundaries of what we are doing. Discussion of these among his subordinates and in the government can only increase the chances that we will develop more effective ways to attack our enemies. All of this probing and questioning is not grim but good news and should be a cause for optimism.

Perhaps the most important issue that Rumsfeld raises in his memo is the issue of how we measure success in the war on terrorism. If we cannot measure our success, then we cannot know if our strategy to win the war is working. If we adopt the wrong measure of success, then we can think we are winning even when we are not. For example, in Vietnam, our measure of success for much of the war was body count, how many of the enemy we killed. But this was a bad measure of success. We could not kill the enemy faster than the enemy could replace those we killed. Thus, killing the enemy could never lead to success.

The principal reason that we could not kill the enemy faster than the enemy could replace his losses was that the North Vietnamese were not fighting only with conventional military forces. If we had success against these forces, as we almost always did, the North Vietnamese could refuse to engage us with these forces yet continue the fight through terrorism, guerrilla warfare, and political warfare. Fundamentally, the North Vietnamese saw the struggle not as war between conventional armies but as a war involving the population of North and South Vietnam, the United States and ultimately world public opinion. Therefore, killing the enemy’s soldiers, which we were very good at, was not enough to win. In fact, killing them could lead to defeat, if the way we killed them or even the fact that we killed them was seen as unjust and thus lost us the battle for public opinion.

It is critically important, therefore, that Rumsfeld asks the question about measuring success. It is at this point, that a doubt enters the reader’s mind. After noting that we do not know how to measure success in the war on terrorism, Rumsfeld asks “Are we capturing, killing or deterring and dissuading more terrorists every day than the madrassas and the radical clerics are recruiting, training and deploying against us?” Asking the question in this way shows the same misunderstanding that was at work in Vietnam. Our enemies are not fighting a war of military force against military force. When they tried that in Afghanistan, it was a disaster for them. For the most part, they will avoid such conflicts. They understand that the war is essentially a political war, a war for public opinion. We cannot capture of kill terrorists faster than they are bred by our enemies, unless paradoxically we make capturing or killing them subordinate to winning the larger political struggle which determines the supply of terrorists.

But just as a doubt enters about Rumsfeld’s understanding because he asks the question about us killing faster than our enemies are recruiting, he eases that doubt by immediately asking about the need for a “broad, integrated plan to stop the next generation of terrorists.” He notes that the US is putting relatively few resources into such a long-range plan but putting a lot of resources into current efforts against terrorists. Rumsfeld then draws the important conclusion. “The cost-benefit ratio is against us! Our cost is billions against the terrorists’ cost of millions.”

In his memo, particularly with regard to the issue of measures of success, Rumsfeld has posed all the right questions. This is a cause for optimism. If this relentless questioning leads not just to better ways to kill terrorists but to an effective long-range plan to stop or diminish the next generation of terrorists, then we will have reason to be even more optimistic.

David Tucker is a Member of the Board of Advisors at the Ashbrook Center for Public Affairs at Ashland University and an Associate Professor of Defense Analysis at the Naval Postgraduate School. He is the author of Skirmishes at the Edge of Empire: The United States and International Terrorism. The views expressed here are his own and do not reflect the position of the Naval Postgraduate School, Navy Department, or Department of Defense.