Rumsfeld's Legacy: How Not to Run the Pentagon

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Mr. Herspring, University Distinguished Professor, Kansas State University, is the author of

Former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld will go down in history as one of the most arrogant, inconsiderate, and – in the end, most incompetent secretaries of defense the US has had – at least since Robert MacNamara held the job.

When he first took over as secretary of defense, many were convinced that he would do an outstanding job.  After all, he had held the position previously under Gerald Ford, so most assumed that he understood the Pentagon and the uniformed military and would be able to work with them to bring about the many changes that most agreed were vital if the US military was to meet the challenges of the 20th century.  Furthermore, He had just turned the failing Searle Corporation around, making it into one of the giants of the pharmaceutical field.

The problem with Rumsfeld – and one that would haunt him throughout his six odd years in office – was that he was convinced that the uniformed military was too conservative, and unable to change.  From his perspective the changes needed were simple: greater reliance on high tech weapons combined with a cut-back in the number of troops needed to fight a war.  Consequently, he did his best in the beginning to keep the military “out of the action” – in fact, set-up study groups on the future of the military, groups that did not include any members of the serving uniformed military.  Needless to say, the military was outraged.

In order to gain control of the military, Rumsfeld focused directly on promotions.  No one could be promoted to three or four stars (or in some cases a one star), without Rumsfeld’s approval.  He was not interested in military officers who would disagree with him.  Their job was to implement his policies, not question them.

Rumsfeld then took on the US Army, an organization he was convinced was too hide-bound.  Besides, his high tech military would reduce the need for “grunts”.  Rumsfeld’s first goal was to reduce the Army by two divisions (so he could use the money saved for high tech weapons).  This came at a time when the Secretary of the Army, Thomas White, and the Chief of Staff of the Army, General Eric Shinseki were asking for an additional two divisions just to carry out the missions assigned to them.  The result was constant conflict with the army and Shinseki.  To his credit, Shinseki behaved like a gentleman, while Rumsfeld and his cronies did their best to embarrass him and force him to retire.

Rumsfeld’s performance during the lead up to, and prosecution of the Iraq War was equally bad.  He was determined to use the Iraqi campaign to prove to the rest of the world, the accuracy of his military transformation policy.  “Shock and awe” would show the superiority of high tech warfare.  Toward this end, he repeatedly pounded General Tommy Franks to cut back the forces he needed for the attack from the 385,000 Franks’s predecessor, General Anthony Zinni, had estimated to the 140,000 actually utilized.  While it is hard to understand why General Franks permitted himself to be bullied into the lower number, it meant that there would be no troops available for what the military calls “Phase IV,” post-combat operations. He also convinced (or bullied) Franks into sending the 1st Cavalry Division back to its original base. Rumsfeld also interfered with one of the military’s most complex documents – the one that determines which units are activated and where they are sent.  As a result, the US ended up not having some critical units in Iraq.  To cite an example, there were not enough military police.  If more had been in Iraq, it is probable that with such competent regulars, we would have avoided  Abu Ghraib. 

Rumsfeld was right about one thing – shock and awe worked – against a rag-tag military force.  But when the Marines and soldiers got to Baghdad, it suddenly became apparent that the US did not have enough troops.  The latter stood by while the city was looted.  It is no surprise that shortly after the end of the Iraq War that General Franks announced he was retiring and went home.  It is also now clear that despite what Rumsfeld said, there were constant requests from the generals in the field for more troops – a request that Rumsfeld claimed was never made.

Of all the mistakes that the US made in Iraq, none was greater than the decision to bar from government and other institutions anyone who was a member in the Bath Party.  In Iraq, with a few exceptions, party membership was similar to party membership in the Soviet Union, necessary for certain jobs.  The policy, which was designed by Douglas Feith, implemented by Jerry Bremer, and approved by Rumsfeld put thousands of Iraqis out of work – physicians, nurses, teachers, lawyers, etc.  Then Bremer followed up with an equally disastrous policy – the dissolution of the Iraqi Army.   There were thousands of Iraqis who would have come back to the Army if offered the option.  Instead, they became insurgents.

During the period from mid-2003 until Rumsfeld was fired in November of 2006, there were repeated suggestions that the US should change its strategy – to one of counter-insurgency.  Rumsfeld would have none of it.  Instead, the US followed the same unsuccessful policy of “search and destroy.”  Finally with the Republican debacle in November, 2006, George Bush accepted Rumsfeld’s resignation.  That was shortly followed by the appointment of a new secretary of defense – Robert Gates -- who oversaw the introduction of a counterinsurgency strategy followed by a “surge” of  30,000 troops.  The result was a major drop in conflict, which created the possibility for reconciliation among the various factions in Iraq.

The sad thing about Rumsfeld was that his tenure did not have to be as disastrous as it was.  If he had been willing to work with officers like General Shinseki, who was already very aware of the need to revolutionize the way the Army fights wars, military transformation would be further along that it is now.  If Rumsfeld had selected a strong personality like General Hugh Shelton to lead the Joint Chiefs, an officer who was prepared to stand up to him, the US might never have invaded Iraq or of it had, would have done so with sufficient troops.   But Rumsfeld was certain that he and only he knew what was right.  It was a case of a highly talented individual “shooting himself in the foot,” by refusing to listen to those around him – especially those in uniform. 

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R.R. Hamilton - 7/16/2008

I agree wholeheartedly with Mr. Davis. Rummy's war plans in Afghanistan and Iraq were brilliant. His POST-war plans were terrible -- although somewhat in his defense, the U.S. intelligence agencies were telling him things like "the Iraqi police are a professional force" and other things that turned out to be false. He cannot be faulted for not anticipating the complete collapse of Iraqi civil society in the wake of a three-week war. (The Iraqi Army wasn't "disbanded" -- it dissolved itself in the heat of battle. The worst that can be said is that it wasn't rehired in Baathist form.) Nevertheless, Rummy can be faulted for failing to increase occupation troop levels after the clear failure of Iraqi civil institutions.

Fahrettin Tahir - 7/14/2008

It is perfectly true that the goal of racial reordering of Europe required operation Barbarossa, which was almost successful. Losing the war is always a risk, which is one of the reasons why sane people prefer to live in peace.
Similiar thing to say about Bulgaria 1913. In 1912 the Balkan countries attacked Turkey to murder 1,5 million moslems in order to steal their land. After that they started to fight each other over land which belonged to none. This did not prevent the christian powers from letting them keep it.

Z. Zoran - 7/14/2008

With all respect, this response is rhetorical shilly-shallying. Arguing that, say, Barbarossa was a disaster for the German in 1941 can, in the same way, be counter-argued: e.g., that the goal of racial reordering of Europe *required* it. It does not change the fact that created strategic nightmares for German military operations and led to the disasters that cost it the war.

In the same way, whatever the long-term 'real' goals of the Bush administration in Iraq (regime change, oil profits, destruction of Iraq, Masonic conspiracies, etc. etc.), it's puzzling how one can argue that the "real" goal of the disbanding of the Iraqi army was the destruction of Iraq, and thus is was not a disaster. (Well, sure, it costs more for the US, causes greater casualties, alienated much of the world even more, made it even harder to create a post-invasion government -- but all of this was part of the Evil Scheme in any case! Bwahahahaha!)

Such conspiracy theories are quite flattering for the U.S.: every strategic mistake the US ever has made is turned into a "secret plot." (War of 1812? Conspiracy. Civil War? Conspiracy. Pearl Harbor? Conspiracy. Kennedy assassination? Conspiracy. Chinese embassy strike in 1999? Conspiracy. 9-11? Conspiracy.) Apparently indeed successive US administrations are *so* remarkable that they have, in fact, never made a mistake. (Alas, of course, the US government is controlled by the Church of the SubGenius through the Fiendish Flouridators, so I suppose they ultimately get the credit.)

Rather than Rumsfeld and Bush (and Bremmer) undertaking stupid (or, charitably, misguided) policies, you effectively argue that this is a *brilliant* move as part of a larger, insidious campaign which historians, the mass media and others fail to recognize. (Even the invasion of Iraq can be argued to be part of their dastardly scheme to destroy Iraq and dismember it, and so instead of a failure to achieve stated goals it's a victory for the secret goals.)

No doubt Rumsfeld is secretly a Deep One, Bush a Mi-Go, and the war in Iraq a means to recover the city of R'lyeh! Cthulhu fhtagn! The stars are right!

I'm not a fan of either Bush nor Rumsfeld's policies in regard to Iraq, but Occam's razor suggests that, in fact, the stated policy was probably the true policy: the pursuit of regime change. (This does not mean it could not have been for selfish or immoral reasons, note. Clearly, it was intended to serve US interests, while *presenting such* as in the long-term interest of the Iraqi people.)

However stupid, criminal or wasteful that policy and/or the attempts to achieve it have proven to be, good history suggests some attempt to engage stated intents of individuals rather than the "real" intent that they "obviously" have but which Nyarlathotep has veiled from all but the most cunning. Herspring is doing such in this excerpt, and I rather look forward to seeing the treatment in the larger book.

Herspring is interested, and is a good historian, in addressing how stated policies correlated with the stated intent of those policies. This is the kind of history I encourage my students to do: what evidence is there, and how does this evidence fit, build or weaken an argument?

While there *could* be a great conspiracy or plan behind those policies (just as in June '41), one has to prove such, not castigate historians for failing to interjecting such conspiracy in all levels of history. There *may be* such a conspiracy but it requires some sense of proof other than the opinions posted on the HNN comments pages.

Don't get me wrong: conspiracies kick ass. Why did the Bulgarian government launch the puzzling and crippling premptive attacks of 1913? *Because they flying spaghetti monster told them to!" Voila, all historical loose ends on the subject are now completed! (The failure to pull out the Salonica detachment? The poor positioning of the 7th Division? The lack of a pre-war partioning agreement? The noodly appendage of the FSM! All is explained!)

You may well *have* such proof of the Bush/Cheney/Rumsfeld (and, indeed, for all you know /Zoran) plot to destroy Iraq, which I'd encourage you publish and thus transform the emergent field of study focusing on the invasion of Iraq. Good history *does* sometimes discover conspiracies: decades of research on Nazi Germany *has* shown that racialist thinking *was* critical in decision making. By finding *documents.* And *primary sources.* Thousands. And creating a fruitful and extensive historical discussion of such, which still sparks some controversy on various levels.

But it's a still big leap from "the Germans invaded the Soviet Union" to "Hitler was looking for the Spear of Longinus." It's entertaining, enjoyable and the kind of thing I enjoy when written by Mike Mignola, but it's not great history.

Of course, no doubt *I too* work for the conspiracy, or am one of the deluded fools that will never see the truth until they pry the Necromonicon from my cold, dead fingers. But as a historian, I occasionally feel the desire to raise (generally futilely, I suspect) the question of historical methodology on HNN in the midst of the extended political debates.

In conclusion, Ph'nglui mglw'nafh Cthulhu! Ai! Ai!

Fahrettin Tahir - 7/11/2008

This is strongly personfying a historic issue. Rumsfeld probably could not politically afford to send the number of soldiers the generals needed for his policy to succeed. Maybe the period in history when you could send an army to take over a larger country is over. Your population will not accept the sacrifice, nor the occupied the occupation. They could have changed Saddams name to something else but then that was not the point.

Glenn Scott Rodden - 7/10/2008

I agree with the author that Rumsfeld is one of the worst Secretary's of Defense in US history, but Mr. Good raises interesting questions about Rumsfeld's intent.

I would add to his analysis by stating that Rumsfeld was following a long established policy of reducing ground combat forces in favor of high-tech weaponry and a greater reliance on defense contractors. The policy of "Machines and Mercs" has been in effect since the end of the Vietnam War. Rumsfeld took the policy to its logical limit.

Lawrence Brooks Hughes - 7/9/2008

Note that with the surge our maximum strength in Iraq was about 175,000. That is much closer to Rummy's 140,000 than to Shinseki's and Zinni's 385,000... Less than half as many, in fact. Yet the surge was clearly enough to do the trick, especially since we also--finally--found the right general. Both Shinsiki and Rumsfeld were wrong on the troop level needed. But it was equally important, or more important, to vault the excellent Petraeus over the likes of Abizaid, Sanchez and Casey. Rumsfeld's worst mistakes were probably his choices (if they were his choices) of commanders. Bremer, of course, was under the State Department, and either the coordination with State was not good, or the State Department was rotten, take your choice. In any case, we have learned a good deal from the Iraq war.

omar ibrahim baker - 7/8/2008

Whether Rumsfeld is the worst or one of the worst secretaries of Defense of the USA is an issue that touches primarily on the American military performance in the Iraqi Conquest.

As such, despite the tremendous ruination it inflicted on Iraq, it is no less flagrant an American debacle for the USA to enlist craven mercenaries, Black Water and ilk, to fight its wars.

Although patently another triumph of free market policies and practices it is still more than baffling for the world, and hopefully shameful for Americans, for the presumed prime advocate of DEMOCRACY and supreme guardian of HUMAN RIGHTS etc etc to revert to hiring mercenaries to achieve its altruistic goals.
What next??
Conscripted green card holders and long term prisoners??

omar ibrahim baker - 7/8/2008

Despite his obvious knowledge of things military and military minutiae Professor Herspring makes the same mistake that others in the mass media, supposedly the less well versed in politico/military decisions, made earlier.
To contend that disbanding the Iraqi army was, simply, "a disastrous policy" is no less of an off conclusion than the often repeated “bad decision”!

Besides the patent naivety of such a verdict lurks the surprising possibility of a dominant lack of political acumen about , or an overriding reluctance to admit, the real strategic objectives of the Iraqi conquest: the dismantlement of the Iraqi state and the destruction of Iraq..

This verdict is no less surprising in that it came only several paragraphs after Professoir Herspring noted the corresponding blow dealt by the USA to the Iraqi civil service through the so called deBaathification policy.

Jim Good - 7/7/2008

"As far as taking the bull that is the Pentagon by the horns and fighting the sclerotic bureaucracy, I think he had good intentions, pre-9/11."

The article doesn't question his intentions. It was Rumsfeld's inability to consider the viewpoints of people who disagreed with him that made him a terrible Secretary of Defense. In a word, "arrogance" did him in.

"His handling of the war in Afghanistan was looked on as brilliant after 9/11."

Until he agreed with Bush, prematurely, that we could move on to a massive military commitment in Iraq, leaving unfinished problems in Afghanistan that plague that country to this day. Not finishing the job became a theme in Iraq too.

"The invasion of Iraq was handled well too. The OCCUPATION of Iraq can be considered a failure, thanks to people like Paul Bremer,, as well. Rummy deserves some blame too, but not the "World's Worst" tag everyone is giving him."

Rumsfeld botched the invasion by not allowing the military enough troops to complete it. In addition to the military's inability to maintain order in Baghdad, they were not able to secure Saddam's ammo dumps, or to secure the borders. Not only did Rumsfeld not allow enough troops, he tried to micromanage the landing of troops and equipment, leaving soldiers waiting for equipment. Whether he was the worse Secretary of Defense ever is a silly question, in my opinion, but Rumsfeld's micromanagement is reminiscent of McNamara's mistakes. In both cases, the politicians tried to run the war on the assumption that they knew how better than the top military brass. It's no different from the MBA's thinking they know more about running the auto industry than the engineers who know the product. Once more, we return to the theme of Rumsfeld's arrogance.

Michael Davis - 7/7/2008

The article is a good one, however I think it's a stretch to compare Rummy to Mac. Mac Namara will go down as the worst SecDef in history.
As far as taking the bull that is the Pentagon by the horns and fighting the sclerotic bureaucracy, I think he had good intentions, pre-9/11.
Remember in early 2001, and the quadrennial military review was coming up? Rummy was praised for wanting to revamp the way the Pentagon was run, and preparing for war (which was still set up to fight a great power, i.e. the Soviet Union.)
Obviously he faced serious entrenched interests in the military. Bravo to him for wanting to change the direction of our vaunted military.
His handling of the war in Afghanistan was looked on as brilliant after 9/11.
The invasion of Iraq was handled well too. The OCCUPATION of Iraq can be considered a failure, thanks to people like Paul Bremer,, as well. Rummy deserves some blame too, but not the "World's Worst" tag everyone is giving him.
Great Power war is no more; our military needs to reflect this, and be modeled to a new way of fighting. For better or worse, Rummy was trying to push the Pentagon in that direction.