What Rumsfeld Got Right

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

A world in which troops have to traverse regions or hemispheres to get to the fight required a more unified command structure. Rumsfeld was not comfortable with the power of geographic-area commanders and the fact that they owned troops. The area commands had been given new powers by the 1986 Goldwater-Nichols act, which aimed to reduce the interservice rivalries exposed by the Vietnam War and the failed attempt to rescue hostages in Iran. They are joint commands, in which one commander represents all the services. As such, the area commands had become the most powerful bureaucratic elements within the military, with the authority to fight the nation’s wars. Rumsfeld tried to break the lock that individual services still held on area commands (a lock that Goldwater-Nichols was supposed to have prevented) by naming a Navy admiral to run the Army-dominated Southern Command, trying to get an Air Force general to run the Navy-dominated Pacific Command, and so on.

He spent a lot of time worrying about seams on the map—for example, where Central Command ended and Pacific Command began (at the borders of India and Pakistan, and Kazakhstan and China, and in the middle of the increasingly critical Indian Ocean). How would the Pentagon handle a conflict athwart such a seam? Rumsfeld centralized the command structure by subtly weakening the area commands and strengthening the global commands. Joint Forces Command got responsibility for recommending troop rotations from one area to another. Transportation Command took control of various air- and sealift commands, and of getting matériel right up to the battlefront. Strategic Command got control of space, cyber warfare, reconnaissance, and missile defense. Special Operations Command took on the global manhunt for al‑Qaeda and went from being a mere force provider to a full-fledged war-fighting command that could operate alongside or even ahead of the area commands.

Parts of the world were unassigned when Rumsfeld came into office; he assigned them. He created Northern Command for the defense of the continental United States and put Canada and Mexico inside it. He assigned Russia to European Command and Antarctica to Pacific Command. Out of part of European Command, which was responsible for much of Africa, he created Africa Command—a potentially pathbreaking bureaucratic instrument that incorporates other agencies like the State Department and emphasizes bilateral training programs and indirect, humanitarian-affairs-oriented approaches over combat. As obvious as all these choices seem, they weren’t when Rumsfeld made them.


In a larger sense, Rumsfeld saw military power and competition moving from Europe to Asia. He worried that, as in Europe, our considerable military presence in South Korea and Japan—the legacy of the Korean War and World War II—had bred unhealthy dependencies. In South Korea, we had a major ground-forces commitment to a country that was shrinking its army, even though it had become one of the world’s largest industrial powers, with an economy 30 times the size of North Korea’s.

Rumsfeld told the left-wing, anti-American government in power in Seoul in the middle of this decade that the United States had to reposition its forces in the country or leave. This very risky gambit resulted in protracted negotiations involving the Pentagon, the National Security Council, the State Department, and the South Korean government, ultimately yielding a new framework for American soldiers to remain in Korea indefinitely. U.S. forces would redeploy south of the demilitarized zone, return facilities to the South Korean military (including the contentious Yongsan Garrison in the heart of Seoul) and shrink from 37,000 to 25,000 troops, with more air and naval assets to make up for the loss of boots on the ground. Meanwhile, the South Koreans agreed to reconsider their own troop reductions, to take over responsibility for the DMZ, and to accept operational control of allied forces in the event of a war. Here is one danger, though: with China rising and America preoccupied in Mesopotamia, our troop drawdown could result in the very Finlandization of the Korean Peninsula that Rumsfeld sought to avoid.

Rumsfeld also took the lead in revamping the U.S.-Japan military relationship. Japan agreed (among other things) to spend billions of dollars to defend itself against North Korean ballistic missiles, and to host the first nuclear aircraft-carrier strike group to forward-deploy overseas (a notable development for a country neuralgic about nuclear weapons). This was painstaking micro-work for Rumsfeld: moving carrier air wings—pilots and their families—from Atsugi, where the Japanese wanted them out, to more-spacious quarters in Iwakuni. The Marine Air Corps Station at Futenma, in a very congested part of Okinawa and a target of Japanese hatred for the American military, would be relocated to Naga, in the less populous north of Okinawa. Meanwhile, the Marine presence on Okinawa overall would be reduced from 18,000 to 10,000, with the difference moving (at Japanese expense) to Guam, which Rumsfeld was building up with submarines, aerial tankers, fighter jets, bombers, and so forth. Although the Clinton administration had started expanding facilities on Guam, here again was another instance in which Rumsfeld’s intervention was critical to forcing change.

The Philippines was a major focus of Rumsfeld’s attempt to recast American strategy in Asia, and it is one whose importance has been underestimated. In 2002, U.S. Special Operations forces teamed up with the Philippine military to clear the south of the country of Islamic terrorists linked to al-Qaeda. The operation on the strategic island of Basilan was successful, and in 2005 it was extended to the island of Jolo. The U.S. military, mainly Army Special Forces, trained the Filipinos, helped gather intelligence, and conducted humanitarian relief, even as the Filipinos did the actual fighting. By using the indirect approach, the operation raised the stature of the U.S. military in the Filipino media for the first time since the 1992 closure of American bases there, opening the door to a new bilateral defense relationship.

Rumsfeld threw his support behind a plan to deploy more aircraft-carrier strike groups in the Pacific rather than keep them hugging the shores of the continental United States. He concluded a strategic framework agreement with Singapore and played a large, very deliberate role in the post–Cold War U.S. rapprochement with India: selling the amphibious ship U.S.S. Trenton to the Indian navy, offering F-18Super Hornets to the Indian air force and P-8Poseidons as replacements for India’s P-3Orion surveillance planes, and boosting the number of naval and air-force exchanges.

By the middle of this decade, just as a new, more flexible, austere, and far-flung basing constellation was emerging worldwide, empowered by a more centrally controlled command structure, troubled relationships with crucial Asian allies were on the mend. Such developments, as Rumsfeld saw them, would help the United States react in expeditionary style to unforeseen emergencies, prosecute the war on terrorism, and hedge against a rising Chinese military without unnecessarily provoking it. These are aspects of Rumsfeld’s legacy that any new administration will quietly adapt or reengineer to its own needs, rather than repeal outright. Barry Blechman, a distinguished fellow at the Henry L. Stimson Center in Washington who is respected by Democrats and Republicans alike, credits Rumsfeld for these changes, which he notes that Congress has also supported. In a note to me, Rumsfeld categorized these decisions as “tough, sometimes criticized, and even condemned, but necessary and, I believe, enduring.”

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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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