What Rumsfeld Got Right

How Donald Rumsfeld remade the U.S. military for a more uncertain world

In 1962, a Harvard economics professor named Thomas C. Schelling wrote an introduction to Roberta Wohlstetter’s Pearl Harbor: Warning and Decision. In a few hundred words, Schelling, a future Nobel Prize winner, delivered a tour de force about the failure to anticipate events. “We were so busy thinking through some ‘obvious’ Japanese moves,” he writes,

that we neglected to hedge against the choice that they actually made … There is a tendency in our planning to confuse the unfamiliar with the improbable … Furthermore, we made the terrible mistake … of forgetting that a fine deterrent can make a superb target.
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Video: "Donald Rumsfeld—The Change Agent "

Atlantic correspondent Robert D. Kaplan takes a fresh look at the legacy of the former secretary of defense.

Schelling’s introduction so impressed Donald H. Rumsfeld that he memorized parts of it and, as others have reported, regularly handed it out before the Pearl Harbor–level attack of 9/11. In his subsequent planning for the invasion of Iraq, Rumsfeld took Schelling’s precepts to heart, thought pessimistically about all sorts of dire scenarios, and got the best possible result.

But only up to the point when organized Iraqi military resistance collapsed. In a tragic, latter-day extension of Schelling’s analysis, Rumsfeld was so busy thinking about the Iraqis’ “obvious” military moves—launching chemical weapons, making a last stand in Baghdad—that he neglected to hedge against what they actually did: melt away and return weeks later as small bands of insurgents. Because of the meager resistance to our interventions in Bosnia and Kosovo in the 1990s, and the swiftness of our apparent victory in Afghanistan in 2001, which Rumsfeld had played a great part in orchestrating, by early 2003 the specter of a debilitating Vietnam-scale insurgency against the United States military had been sufficiently exorcised to seem “unfamiliar,” and therefore to be confused with “the improbable.” By the time Saddam Hussein’s statue was toppled in Baghdad, we had become too impressed with our own military to see it as a “superb target.”

Rumsfeld, one former Pentagon official told me, saw Iraq’s degraded military as an easy target for our own; its destruction would provide a quick demonstration of American power, as well as get rid of the regional threat that the Iraqi regime constituted. No firm believer in democratic transformation, he probably assumed, as did many other people at the time, that any new regime in Baghdad, even a military one, would be a dramatic improvement, in strategic terms for the U.S. and in human-rights terms for the Iraqis. Rather than a fear of chaos, what is more apparent at this stage is a certain complacency on Rumsfeld’s part. For example, he evidently did not challenge the personnel system’s choice of ground commander in post-invasion Iraq. The Army’s 5th Corps was slated to rotate out of Germany and into Iraq. Lieutenant General Ricardo Sanchez, the 5th Corps commander, and his staff, despite their service in Bosnia, had done little thinking about counterinsurgency. From that set of circumstances, a long trail of well-documented mistakes followed. In this and other cases, Rumsfeld, who is often accused of micromanaging, did not micromanage enough.

“Rumsfeld got war and transformation only half-right,” says Richard H. Shultz Jr., the director of international security studies at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy near Boston. “He was right that the lethality and speed of a military advance could be transformational, but he didn’t realize that the enemy might have an answer to that in the form of a war after the war.” As Thomas Donnelly, a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, puts it, Rumsfeld’s view of transformation was “profoundly self-referential,” concerned with what we could do, not what the enemy could.

Rumsfeld, an amateur wrestler and Navy S-2 Tracker pilot, had always seen the world as something that would bend to the force of his will. His early career was a triumph: a four-term congressman in his 30s, he was soon afterward director of the president’s office of economic opportunity, and then ambassador to NATO. Under Gerald R. Ford, he became, at 43, the youngest secretary of defense ever, oversaw the creation of the all-volunteer Army, and fought for a bigger defense budget to restore what he saw as a declining strategic advantage for the United States vis-à-vis the Soviet Union—just before the Kremlin’s geopolitical gains in Africa and Central America in the late 1970s. From 1977 to 1985, he ran the pharmaceutical company G. D. Searle.

Rumsfeld’s reputation in the 1970s was as it would be when he returned to government decades later. The dark master himself, Richard M. Nixon, had pronounced him a “ruthless little bastard.” If Franklin Delano Roosevelt possessed, as Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. supposedly put it, “a second-class intellect, but a first-class temperament,” Rumsfeld was a man with a first-class intellect, but a third-class temperament. His in-your-face disposition led to dreadful relations with Congress and the so-called Revolt of the Generals in 2006, when a half-dozen retired senior officers demanded his resignation. “The man is capable of raking down all opposition, and has an astonishing ability not to listen to experts,” said retired Army General Barry McCaffrey, who says he admires Rumsfeld’s patriotism, ferocious intelligence, and formidable charm. But heeding experts, McCaffrey went on, is what has saved the career of many a high official not nearly as intelligent.

During the Clinton years, the military gained too much power over the civilian defense leadership, subtly using the president’s lack of military service to get its way. Rumsfeld, a civilian primacist, shifted that dynamic too far in the other direction. His method of creative destruction, brought over from his years in the corporate world, was simply too much for a static, hidebound institution like the Pentagon. “Rumsfeld was more effective as a critic of the Pentagon than as a leader of it,” says Richard J. Danzig, a Clinton-era secretary of the Navy, now an adviser to Barack Obama. A critic sees problems; a leader creates dynamic consensus.

A Tom Toles cartoon in 2006 declared Rumsfeld “Wrong About Everything.” Not quite. I discussed Rumsfeld with more than two dozen defense experts, Republicans and Democrats alike (though mostly centrists), many of whom had government experience. Their impressions were more measured than Rumsfeld’s toxic image in the media would suggest. Although I had briefed Rumsfeld twice, in 2002 and 2006, about my worries regarding Iraq, when I reached out to him a year ago he wouldn’t meet with me. For this piece, he provided matter-of-fact, occasionally opaque written responses to some of my questions. Thanks to his long tenure and personal dynamism, Rumsfeld has had an impact that will go far beyond Iraq in shaping the actions of future administrations. Obsessed with what could go wrong, Rumsfeld was a brilliant worrier. It is in his Schelling-inspired pessimism where we might find some saving graces to his legacy.


Even before 9/11, Rumsfeld saw a new strategic landscape of manifest uncertainty, of fundamental and catastrophic surprise. Consider the conclusions drawn in 1998 by the Commission to Assess the Ballistic Missile Threat to the United States, which Rumsfeld chaired (and which had, among its members, Paul D. Wolfowitz): the ballistic-missile threat to the United States was growing; our intelligence community’s ability to track that threat was diminishing; and the “U.S. might well have little or no warning before operational deployment” by countries like Iran of ballistic missiles that could reach our soil.

Not surprisingly, that threat and the need to counter it topped Rumsfeld’s fret list when he returned to the Pentagon, in January 2001. Before his first year in office was over, the United States had moved to abrogate the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty it had signed with the U.S.S.R. in 1972, limiting missile-defense systems. As Rumsfeld saw it, while the logic of mutually assured destruction still held for two rational and conservative defense bureaucracies in Washington and Moscow, it might not work with terrorist groups or rogue states that lacked proper command-and-control oversight. Development of a missile-defense system accelerated; as of early 2008, there were 24 interceptors in silos in Alaska and California, and 25 on board U.S. ships in the Pacific. The system remains far from foolproof; it is also the single most expensive weapons system in the Pentagon’s budget, as well as its most costly R&D program. And the money spent on missile defense might have been better used to counter more-immediate nuclear threats, such as dirty bombs and the cross-border smuggling of enriched uranium. Yet there have been big improvements in the system’s capabilities, and even a partial missile defense will give America more leverage and freedom of action in dealing with adversaries than did a relic like the ABM treaty.

Just as Rumsfeld wanted to do away with the enshrined assumptions of Cold War deterrence, he was keenly focused on altering the Pentagon mind-set captured by the so-called Powell doctrine. When Rumsfeld was secretary of defense in the 1970s, Colin Powell was an Army colonel. By the time Rumsfeld returned to the Pentagon, a quarter century later, Powell’s canonical fingerprints were all over the building. As the senior military assistant to Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger in the early 1980s, Powell had helped devise the Weinberger doctrine, from which his own doctrine emanated. Both favored major conventional combat operations with beginnings, middles, and ends, to be undertaken only when a vital national interest was threatened. Powell, in his later roles as national-security adviser and chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, emphasized overwhelming force, exit strategies, and clear, attainable objectives, not to mention the need for broad international support. The Powell doctrine essentially saw the military as a precious national asset that stupid civilians should not be able to deploy too casually. But Rumsfeld worried that the world was too messy, too fluid—with one crisis flowing into the next across geographical regions—and the dangers facing America too complex and varied for such a cut-and-dried approach.

Of course, by violating aspects of the Powell doctrine in Iraq, Rumsfeld and his subordinates arguably showed themselves to be precisely the stupid civilians the doctrine was meant to guard against. Yet the Powell doctrine isn’t perfect. Kuwait was pillaged in 1990 while Powell spent months building up forces in Saudi Arabia. His doctrine seemingly justified ignoring the Balkans in the 1990s, but we inserted troops anyway, and debilitating wars did not result—indeed, the stabilization of the former Yugoslavia and the expansion of NATO to the Black Sea indicate that the Balkan interventions were in the nation’s interest. An unwillingness to engage in any but the smallest deployments, or in big ones that carried the certainty of a clean conventional victory, can itself be a form of retreat and defeat. “What’s the point of having this superb military that you’re always talking about, if we can’t use it?” Madeleine Albright, then-ambassador to the United Nations, asked then-Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Powell in 1993, during a discussion of intervention in Bosnia. Rumsfeld might have complained similarly, though his conception of the national interest was very different from hers.

In Rumsfeld’s view, U.S. troops in one part of the world would have to be ready to deploy to another on a moment’s notice, and be ready to fight or to provide relief. Everything would be expeditionary. Hence his fixation with changing the global posture of the military, and transforming it as a fighting force. The intellectual groundwork for both transitions was started during Bill Clinton’s administration, but Rumsfeld is the one who got them going.

In the mid-1980s, the United States had a cluster of large, fully developed bases in Europe and the Far East, with 250,000 personnel in West Germany and 125,000 in East Asia. By 9/11, because of a process begun by the George H. W. Bush and Clinton administrations, those numbers had dropped to 118,000 in Europe and 89,000 in East Asia. Rumsfeld wasn’t satisfied, though. Afghanistan and Iraq had justified his worries that our troops were not only poorly positioned to fight where they were needed, but also unable to move quickly or freely because of the occasional need to secure transit permission from host countries. In 2003, for example, Austria forbade the use of its airspace and declined to give the U.S. any transit rights en route to Iraq.

Thus, by 2004, the Pentagon unveiled plans to bring home an additional 70,000 troops from those fixed garrisons, even as it moved to expand a network of bare-bones sites in Asia, Africa, the Middle East, and Latin America to support rotational rather than permanently stationed forces. Such “lily pad” bases would be different from the “Little Americas” of the Cold War: no soldiers’ spouses, no kids, no day-care centers, no dogs, no churches. A leaner presence might prove less of an impediment to bilateral relations. The number of status-of-forces agreements with host countries doubled from the end of the Cold War through the end of Rumsfeld’s tenure, from 45 to over 90. And the Air Force signed more than 20 comparable gas-and-go agreements with countries in Africa while Rumsfeld was secretary of defense. Andrew Krepinevich and Robert Work, president and vice president, respectively, at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, told me that Rumsfeld got global posture basically right for a chaotic world by emphasizing, in Work’s words, an austere “global coaling-station network.” Other experts, including some from Democratic administrations, echoed their views.

A counterargument is that troops are needed not just to fight but to show political will. As one Democratic former defense official told me, “You need to demonstrate to the Russians that NATO still matters,” and that means troops in Europe. McCaffrey, in particular, poured scorn on Rumsfeld’s desire to draw down further in Germany, noting that American troops there not only are important to the Poles and other eastern Europeans threatened by Russia, but also are much closer to the Middle East than they would be back in “fortress America.”

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Robert D. Kaplan is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security in Washington. His most recent book is Hog Pilots, Blue Water Grunts: The American Military in the Air, at Sea, and on the Ground (2007).

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