"Policy is the guiding intelligence and war only the instrument, not vice versa."
- Carl von Clausewitz, from On War.
In this season of rebirth, Washington is enthralled not just by flowering cherry blossoms but by that other hardy perennial: the "whither Rumsfeld" bloom. This colorful flower, which took root just months after the secretary assumed his post in 2000, is again in full bloom, nurtured by the light and heat of (count 'em) seven retired generals.
However history judges the pugnacious Defense Secretary, it must surely note the enduring irony of his tenure; his signature success -- transforming the military -- may also be his signature failure. His fate hinges less on the judgment of generals, than on the policy preferences of the public.
War, the Prussian military theorist Carl von Clausewitz famously observed, is the continuation of politics by other means. He could have just as easily said military planning, for our politics determine how we will use the military instrument and just how sharp -- or blunt -- that instrument must be.
Donald Rumsfeld returned to the post of Defense Secretary in 2000 with a clear view of both the politics and the instrument. He promised to transform the military from the plodding, manpower intensive force of the Cold War into a leaner, networked military which would employ superior firepower and maneuver to compensate for fewer soldiers and lighter ground vehicles. This military, with its emphasis on remotely piloted aircraft and high altitude, precision strike capability, could produce quicker victories against a broader array of threats -- and with fewer casualties. It would have fewer massive bases overseas and more "forward operating sites" -- bare-bones facilities where supplies, troops and equipment could be "surged" in the event of conflict.
This vision of "military transformation" was not uniquely Rumsfeld's. Many scholars and service-members had been promoting the "revolution in military affairs" before he arrived at the Pentagon. But Rumsfeld seized on it with a single minded determination. The theory of transformation had the usual retinue of critics and cheerleaders, but the press was largely interested in which weapons system were on the chopping block (and by extension, which pork-addled members of Congress were positioning themselves between the knife) - not to mention how the Army was peeved at Rumsfeld's management style. Rarely did the press focus on the core question of just what political ends this Rumsfeldian military was being built to accomplish. The transformation debates took place in what was, before the Iraq war, a political vacuum.
Rumsfeld knew what kind of military he was building and he knew what that military was supposed to do. In a January 2002 speech, he listed six criteria:
"First, to protect the U.S. homeland and our bases overseas. Second, to project and sustain power in distant theaters. Third, to deny our enemies sanctuary, making sure they know that no corner of the world is remote enough, no mountain high enough, no cave or bunker deep enough, no SUV fast enough to protect them from our reach. Fourth, to protect our information networks from attack. Fifth, to use information technology to link up different kinds of U.S. forces so that they can in fact fight jointly. And sixth, to maintain unhindered access to space and protect our space capabilities from enemy attack."
It was a mission, he later said, that was "determined and inviolable." What it was not was a colonial army, a manpower-intensive force designed to occupy nations or failed states and restore working political institutions (let alone electric or sewer systems). Rather, Rumsfeld was building an army for what Council on Foreign Relations fellow Walter Russell Mead termed "Jacksonian" America -- an army to fight and win wars, not perform social work.
Prior to the Iraq war, Rumsfeld was hardly alone in his conception of the use of American military power. It was (and remains) a hallmark of the "realist" school of foreign policy to look askance at both the utility and effectiveness of nation-building. In the run-up to the 2000 elections, both then-candidate George Bush and Condoleezza Rice were firmly in this realist tradition, evincing skepticism about the previous administration's penchant for nation-building. In the 2000 debates against then-Vice President Al Gore, Bush famously rejected a nation-building role for the U.S. military. Rice was more dismissive. Writing in Foreign Affairs she noted that: "The president must remember that the military is a special instrument. It is lethal, and it is meant to be. It is not a civilian police force. It is not a political referee. And it is most certainly not designed to build a civilian society."
Today, as President Bush shepherds the most ambitious nation-building project since the Marshall Plan, as Secretary Rice boasts of a standing nation-building office, and as U.S. soldiers hand out school supplies to Afghan children, the only cabinet member not to have changed his mind is Rumsfeld. The most recent Quadrennial Defense Review issued by Rumsfeld's Pentagon called for more high-tech weapons, not more soldiers for carrying out occupations.
In a revealing interview with talk show host Rush Limbaugh, Rumsfeld said he spends his days "working on transformation and seeing that we manage the force in a successful way, and working on things involving Iraq." That the present, hot war in Iraq ranked third among the Defense Secretary's priorities was illuminating, but not surprising. In a profile of Rumsfeld, Washington Post Magazine writer David Von Drehle noted how the secretary viewed his job as ensuring that the Iraq war did not siphon off funds and resources destined for transformative weapons systems. He never envisioned -- let alone desired -- a prolonged occupation to reconstitute Iraq as a liberal democracy and is determined to ensure (by the military he is building) that it is not a precedent.
When it came time to invade Iraq, Rumsfeld insisted on the transformative approach (light and fast) so effective in driving the Taliban from Kabul. According to the Post's Drehle, "Rumsfeld cut the troop strength in the invasion plan by more than half, and cut the deployment time by months." The result was a spectacular "dash to Baghdad" which unseated Saddam Hussein's 30-year tyranny in under a month. Writing in the Washington Post in September 2003, Rumsfeld delivered a rebuke to those who endorsed a classical "nation building" approach for Iraq, arguing that since the U.S. "did not aspire to own" the country, it would keep a correspondingly small number of soldiers on the ground lest the Iraqis grow dependent on American assistance. According to Rumsfeld, the old rules, typified by a RAND study suggesting a successful occupation of Iraq would require several hundred thousand soldiers, no longer applied to his transformational military machine.
What Rumsfeld didn't anticipate was that "dependence" was a foregone conclusion, it was merely a matter of who the Iraqis would come to depend upon. Today, they are dependent on tribal and sectarian militia to provide for their security and dependent too, on the United States, which now stands as the only bulwark against foreign intervention and internal dissolution. The resulting insecurity and sectarian tension may not undermine the Iraq project, but they have clearly endangered it. Transformation proved capable of swiftly dispatching enemy armies, but Rumsfeld's "new thinking" has stumbled in the arena of post-conflict stabilization. Neoconservative champions of the Iraq war, such as Weekly Standard editor Bill Kristol, recognized this rather early and began calling for Rumsfeld's scalp.
Military historian and Rumsfeld critic Frederick Kagan wrote in the Weekly Standard:
"Smart weapons cannot keep peace. They cannot get schools and hospitals running, or keep electricity and water flowing, or keep hostile neighbors from attacking one another, or provide a police presence to deter looters and criminals, or hunt down and capture individual terrorists, interrogate them, and learn from them the nature of the organizations to which they belong, or find traces of a WMD program hidden carefully in a country the size of California."
Yet despite calls from generals -- armchair or otherwise -- to increase the size of the Army, Rumsfeld has refused.
It is in Iraq where the rubber of Rumsfeld's doctrine is meeting the road of American purpose. President Bush has embraced (in Mead's terminology) the Wilsonian mission of democracy promotion, yet supports a Defense Secretary who continues to build an army designed to do anything but. It is not a sustainable contradiction. Either the U.S. backs off nation building or adapts transformation to accommodate more stabilization and reconstruction missions (read: a significant increase in reserve forces available for post-conflict duty). In short, the U.S. has to decide what kind of foreign policy it wants before it builds its military.
The Wall Street Journal's Greg Jaffe noted in 2003 that: "Victory in Iraq promises to offer a big boost to Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's mission to transform how the U.S. military fights, what it buys and where it goes."
In an odd twist, so could failure. It's an open question whether the public's increasing unease about the Iraq mission will translate into a rebuke of Rumsfeld's policies or an endorsement. Looking into the tumult in Baghdad, the public might conclude, not that Rumsfeld was wrong to under-man the occupation, but that he was right to reject such a mission for the U.S. in the first place.
Only time, and future defense secretaries, will tell.