What Rumsfeld Got Right

How Donald Rumsfeld remade the U.S. military for a more uncertain world
A Transformation, of Sorts

Why was Rumsfeld, by many accounts, more astute in dealing with Korea and Japan than with Iraq? Ironically, the quagmire that Rumsfeld helped create in Mesopotamia also had the effect of turning these once-inviolate Asian relationships into second-order issues open to renegotiation. Rumsfeld also had more-immediate access to area expertise. He himself had been a Japan aficionado since the early 1960s, with his own longtime contacts, a passion that came from having a father aboard a carrier in the Pacific during World WarII while the family lived in Coronado, California. Moreover, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs from 2001 to 2005, Air Force General Richard B. Myers, who was in over his head when dealing with Middle Eastern insurgencies, had commanded U.S. forces in Japan. On the whole, thanks to the half-century-long presence of so many American troops in Korea and Japan, people around the table in the ERing knew what they were dealing with when it came to the Far East—something that could not always be said of their encounters with the Muslim world.

Another factor was also at work: the whole point of Rumsfeld’s Pacific-centric military worldview, which his global coaling-station network was meant to enforce, was for U.S. forces to be light and lethal, reacting quickly without getting entrenched in any spot. A long occupation of Iraq didn’t fit into this vision, which may be one reason that, as Andrew Hoehn, a Rand Corporation vice president and former deputy assistant defense secretary under Rumsfeld, told me, Rumsfeld often seemed more passionate about preparing the military for future challenges in Asia than he did about dealing with the occupation of Iraq. Rather than constructively worry about Iraq and take charge of policy there, he veered toward ambivalence: he allowed Sanchez and L. Paul BremerIII, head of the Coalition Provisional Authority, to work at cross-purposes, and his neglect yielded an enfeebling status quo and ultimately a slide into civil war.

All of Rumsfeld’s changes to the U.S. military presence overseas fit into a larger effort to transform the military as a fighting force. Transformation, particularly of the Army, began in the 1990s under a Democratic administration and Army Chief of Staff Eric Shinseki, among other general officers. Then-Governor George W. Bush, in a 1999 speech at the Citadel in Charleston, South Carolina, cited “a revolution in the technology of war” and called for forces that must be “agile, lethal, readily deployable, and require a minimum of logistical support.” Rumsfeld would become associated with transformation, though it was not as much a part of his original agenda as was missile defense. In fact, had former Indiana Republican Senator Dan Coats and former Assistant Secretary of Defense Richard Armitage, who had both pushed the issue in the 1990s, been chosen as the defense secretary and deputy defense secretary, respectively (as was mooted in late 2000), transformation might have been further along today—one reason why Kurt M. Campbell, chief executive officer of the Center for a New American Security (where I am a senior fellow), says that the failure to appoint Coats and Armitage was “one of the biggest personnel blunders” of the Bush administration.

Rumsfeld, of course, wouldn’t agree. Regarding transformation, he wrote me that his team “put special emphasis on the importance of more horizontal, decentralized structures that share and leverage the information necessary for effective and timely decision-making, as opposed to the bureaucratic stovepiping that dominated U.S. national security institutions during the Cold War.” Yet one could also argue that much of the transformation that did occur under Rumsfeld was the result of the debilitating war in Iraq, which forced the Pentagon, and the Army in particular, to change momentously, in ways that no defense secretary could have managed on his own.

Nevertheless, Rumsfeld did press for one of the most significant shifts in Army organization since the Napoleonic era, changing the Army’s central maneuver unit from the division to the brigade combat team. A brigade was only half or a third the size of a division (which could have anywhere from 10,000 to 15,000 soldiers). Its headquarters element was less bureaucratic and less top-heavy with colonels. The size of a brigade could be fitted to the situation. Rumsfeld’s emphasis on brigades represented an organizational means for dealing with a more anarchic, unconventional world. He planned to increase the number of Army brigades by a third, even as he reduced the overhead staff at the division level.

But for Rumsfeld, transformation was primarily about changes not in how we structure forces but in how we fight. Exhibit A was Afghanistan, where, as he put it in a Foreign Affairs article in 2002, “the nineteenth century met the twenty-first century,” as Army Special Forces and CIA troops coordinated with Air Force special operators on horseback calling in precision strikes. Indeed, Rumsfeld was an avid supporter of special-operations forces (SOF). Against Navy resistance, he led the effort to refit ballistic-missile submarines with SEAL delivery vehicles in place of Trident nuclear warheads, to make it easier to land special operators on beachheads. His passion for SOF was shared by a number of Democrats, including Senators Carl Levin, John Kerry, and Jack Reed. With Congress’s support, Rumsfeld got SOF’s budget doubled, from $3.5 billion to $7 billion: proof that just because Donald Rumsfeld believed something, didn’t mean it was wrong.

Yet SOF has two traditions: direct action (combat), and a softer, embrace-your-indigenous-brother training approach. In his early years as defense secretary, Rumsfeld was more interested in direct action. Al-Qaeda, he thought, warranted a global manhunt and little more. Only later, after his comeuppance in Iraq, and as confirmed by the 2006 Quadrennial Defense Review, did he come around to the view that with an unpredictable enemy—and one that was easy to kill but hard to locate—we needed to understand the local language and culture and to bond with the indigenous inhabitants. During his tenure, the number of Arabic speakers in the military grew by 30 percent, Farsi speakers by 50 percent, Urdu speakers by 76 percent, and Chinese speakers by 57 percent. But these figures seem impressive only because the starting numbers were so low. For example, before 9/11 there were 4,384 speakers of Arabic, but only 5,703 by 2005. Compare this with 92,852 Spanish-speakers and 14,097 French-speakers. Future defense secretaries will have to do much better.

THe price of being half-right

The real tragedy of Rumsfeld’s career may not have been that he didn’t plan for an occupation of Iraq, but that 9/11 happened in the first place. On September 10, 2001, Rumsfeld gave a speech lambasting the Pentagon bureaucracy, his overriding concern. He was so frustrated by the glacial pace of progress that it was unclear whether he would have stayed on as defense secretary without a 9/11. “Do you know why Rumsfeld picked Wolfowitz to be his deputy defense secretary?” one former Republican defense official began. “Because Rumsfeld cared more about organization than he did about policy, and needed an alter ego to handle the policy side. Rumsfeld planned to be his own chief operating officer.” After 9/11, management reverted mostly to Wolfowitz, as Rumsfeld began to concentrate more on the “Global War on Terrorism.” It is famously said in Washington that Wolfowitz, as an academic, had no management experience. That is a narrow version of the truth, however. He was not just an academic but a dean, an assistant secretary of state for East Asia, an undersecretary of defense for policy, and an ambassador to Indonesia, running one of America’s largest embassies, which won a management award from the State Department during his tenure. Wolfowitz may have been a bad manager, but his résumé gives little indication of it.

Regarding management, Rumsfeld was at times his own worst enemy, distracting rather than concentrating the bureaucracy with his famed notes, or “snowflakes.” But Rumsfeld did after a fashion attend to the books, even if massive cost overruns and a ballooning defense budget were the hallmarks of his tenure. According to his comptroller, Dov S. Zakheim, currently a vice president at Booz Allen Hamilton, Rumsfeld reduced the more than $3 trillion of improperly recorded, unaudited Pentagon transactions to hundreds of billions. He created a defense business board, and reformed the national-security personnel system to take into account considerations of merit. Rumsfeld is often spoken of in the same negative breath as Vietnam-era Defense Secretary Robert S. McNamara. Zakheim and others with whom I spoke made a positive association: McNamara failed on Vietnam, but he succeeded in devising a planning, programming, and budgeting system that lasted for 40 years. Time will tell whether Rumsfeld accomplished something similar.

Additionally, Rumsfeld may have been right on other things: de-emphasizing nuclear weapons by giving Strategic Command a conventional-strike capacity, and by sharply reducing the nuclear stockpile; creating an undersecretary of intelligence to make relations with the civilian intelligence community more seamless; developing the littoral combat ship, however overpriced, as the first phase of a counterguerrilla force at sea; killing the Crusader artillery program and using the funds to research precision-guided rockets and mortars for the Army; encouraging the Marines to stand up several battalions to Special Operations Command; helping expand NATO eastward; and forcing change upon NATO by appointing Marine General James Jones to run the Army-centric organization, by trying to establish a NATO rapid-reaction force, and by replacing the supreme allied command for the Atlantic, located in Norfolk, with an allied command for transformation. On a number of these things, he got significant help from the much-maligned Wolfowitz.

The list of things Rumsfeld got wrong is also long, better known, and historically more consequential. To wit, his decision to more or less go it alone in Afghanistan in 2001 made strict military but not political sense. The failure to allow NATO a large role in the beginning gave alliance members little stake in the outcome—a dynamic that continues to hamper the war’s conduct. His use of private contractors in Iraq made sense in order to create efficiencies in the rear, but because Iraq constituted an irregular war, there was often no rear there, so contractors found themselves in the midst of the fighting. The abuse of prisoners at Abu Ghraib was an abject failure in the chain of command going all the way up to the defense secretary, who must be held accountable.

Rumsfeld did achieve a measure of redemption in the 2006 Quadrennial Defense Review. The concept of the “long war” elaborated in the QDR was less a sign of Rumsfeld’s warmongering than of his belated realization that the indirect approach exemplified by the strategy in the Philippines pointed a way forward. As the QDR says, “Efforts … on five continents demonstrate the importance of being able to work with and through [indigenous] partners, to operate clandestinely and to sustain a persistent but low-visibility presence.” This last of his QDRs also acknowledged the need for stabilization operations, or nation-building. That is a far cry from the Rumsfeld who at the beginning of his tenure couldn’t wait to get our troops out of their peacekeeping mission in the Balkans.

So Donald Rumsfeld finally got it right. But as Richard Shultz Jr. of the Fletcher School argued, his being half-wrong on operational strategy for too many years cost too many Iraqis, Afghans, and Americans untold suffering. No improvements in Iraq and Afghanistan will reverse that verdict. As for the rest, developments in Asia, Africa, and Europe for years to come will say much more about Rumsfeld’s legacy: a legacy that, in one final irony, may give future Madeleine Albrights more of the tools they need to intervene for humanitarian reasons.

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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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