TCS Daily

What Rumsfeld's Critics Don't Get

By Gregory Scoblete - December 7, 2006 12:00 AM

Many Iraq war supporters greeted the resignation of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld with a sigh of relief, if not a quiet cheer.

Neoconservatives like the Weekly Standard's Bill Kristol and war historian Frederick Kagan began clamoring for the secretary's scalp earlier than even most Democrats. They believe that Rumsfeld and his doctrine of military transformation, which sidelines manpower in favor of speed and precision, have all but destroyed their vision of a democratic Iraq and a Middle East transformed. blogger Andrew Sullivan has been a vociferous critic of the outgoing secretary, frequently accusing him of sending "just enough troops to lose."

For incoming Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, it's important that he not take the wrong lessons from Rumsfeld's ignominious departure. Iraq does not stand as a rebuke to Rumsfeld's transformative doctrine, or to the crucial political assumptions it makes about the proper use of American military power. Just the opposite. Gates, then, should reject the advice of Senator McCain and the Weekly Standard that more troops are needed in Iraq. The truth is, the U.S. does not - and never did - possess a sufficient amount of ground forces to "transform" Iraq into a stable democracy.

Transformation Versus Transformation

There's no question that Rumsfeld has sins to atone for, but the transformation of the military is not one of them. Nor should he be made the scapegoat for what was - and remains - a dubious set of propositions advocated by his critics: that the military can and should be used aggressively to transform the political institutions of hostile states, that the U.S. possessed sufficient and sustainable reserves of blood, treasure and public will for such an endeavor in Iraq in March 2003 and that such a mission was the appropriate response to the threat of Islamic terrorism.

In the rush to heap opprobrium on an unpopular figure, it's important not to lose sight of the fact that on several fundamental issues of how America exercises its military power, Rumsfeld was right and his critics are wrong.

Rumsfeld's vision of transformation has always been far too parsimonious for neoconservatives, who championed an American Empire and waxed nostalgic for the British Colonial Office. To the military's traditional role of defeating and deterring conventional nation states, Rumsfeld labored to add the ability to quickly locate, target and destroy terrorist cells and facilities around the globe and to accomplish these tasks remotely, minimizing U.S. casualties. Such a vision demanded a lean, agile and networked force. It was not, however, the neocolonial occupation army demanded by his critics.

Rumsfeld was clearly the odd man out in an administration that jettisoned its realist sensibilities in the aftermath of 9/11 in favor of a more ambitious use of American power. His preference to turn Iraq over to the Iraqis quickly stood in stark contrast to the administration's professed aims of constructing a democracy in the heart of the Middle East. His desire for a rapid exit undoubtedly hastened Iraq's sectarian fragmentation, but such a fragmentation was inevitable. The U.S simply did not possess enough manpower to accomplish what Rumsfeld's critics wanted to in Iraq.

In 2002, the U.S. had 487,000 soldiers in the active duty Army, 178,000 Marines, and 66,000 full time Guard and Reserve troops - a total 731,000, according to the National Defense Budget Estimates for 2007. Tens of thousands of these soldiers were deployed in South Korea, the Balkans, Afghanistan and elsewhere on a rotating basis. Rumsfeld may have been able to stretch and commit roughly half a million troops to the invasion of Iraq. But there's a catch.

"If they had put 500,000 troops in Iraq in 2003, they would have all gone home with no replacements by early 2004, just before the insurgency really took off," said military analyst John Pike, Director of "The question is not how many to put in initially, but rather how many can be sustained. The current number is sustainable indefinitely. A larger number would have required a larger Army."

An Army we did not have when contemplating the invasion of Iraq.

In his now famous Senate testimony, Army General Eric Shinseki suggested that "several hundred thousand" troops would be necessary to occupy Iraq. Rumsfeld reportedly relented in the war planning to allow for an additional 100,000 troops to be available to deploy in Iraq in the event of an emergency, alongside the initial invasion force of 150,000. Critics who assert that Rumsfeld sent "just enough troops to lose" implicitly argue that these additional forces would have been decisive.

Gates, during his first day of hearings, suggested they might have, but there's ample reason to doubt it. First, consider this recounting of the Battle of Nasiriya from Tim Pritchard in the New York Times. U.S. forces encountered fierce resistance not just from Saddam's paramilitary Fedayeen in the first days of the war but from Iraq's supposedly supportive Shia population. The assumption that the U.S. would only need to police a restive, but minority, Sunni population was incorrect. The U.S. had a much larger population base to be concerned about.

Studies of nation building by James T. Quinlivan and James Dobbins of the RAND Corporation also suggest that even if Rumsfeld committed 300,000 thousand troops to Iraq, they would not have tipped the scales toward democracy.

Writing in the RAND Review, Quinlivan observed

"Successful strategies for population security and control have required force ratios either as large as or larger than 20 security personnel (troops and police combined) per thousand inhabitants. This figure is roughly 10 times the ratio required for simple policing of a tranquil population.... The population of Iraq today is nearly 25 million. That population would require 500,000 foreign troops on the ground to meet a standard of 20 troops per thousand residents. This number is more than three times the number of foreign troops now deployed to Iraq. For a sustainable stabilization force on a 24-month rotation cycle, the international community would need to draw on a troop base of 2.5 million troops."

At the time of the invasion of Iraq, the entire armed forces of the United States (including Navy and Air Force) totaled 1.4 million people. Those who continue to demand more troops for Iraq should explain where they propose to find them.

Appreciating that there were never enough troops to fulfill the goal of a pacified (let alone democratic) Iraq is one thing, but Rumsfeld's critics also insist that he should have enlarged the Army after 9/11 in anticipation of future wars. Yet as the RAND figures demonstrate, the increases they want (Kagan, for instance, has stumped for an extra 100,000) fall far short of the task they have set for the military.

The more fundamental issue is whether such a manpower intensive strategy of occupation-to-foster-political-change is a worthy strategic goal in the first place. Iraq suggests it was not (and for the record I supported the invasion).

Back in the day, Secretary of State Rice observed that the military is a "lethal instrument" not a tool for social work. Such a vision was dismissed after 9/11, by Rice no less than others, as out-of-step with the new era, where Islamic terrorists take shelter in failed states and the ideology of jihad lures the surging population of the Greater Middle East.

But Rice had it right the first time.

Democracy, for all its manifest benefits, is not an antidote to radical Islam and the costs of an open-ended nation building mission far outweigh the benefits (to say nothing of America's decidedly mixed record when it comes to nation building).

A more robust nation building capability will provide no safety from Islamic terrorism and will at best deliver marginal gains to overall U.S. security - at enormous costs. Even if it were possible for the U.S. and coalition partners to transform countries like Afghanistan and Iraq into unified and stable democracies, al Qaeda terrorists would simply find new safe havens in other failed states, or in countries like Pakistan with "ungovernable" hinterlands that are off limits to large scale American military deployments. It is simply impossible for the U.S. alone or in tandem with NATO and the UN to secure and liberalize every last country in which Islamic terrorists could potentially find safe haven.

Besides, the ideology of jihadism need only claim mental real estate to be dangerous. It has thrived in cyber-space, creating a "virtual Umma" of the like-minded who can recruit, plot and train irrespective of the political system in their country of origin. We also know, thanks to the existence of "home grown" Islamic radicals in Europe and the demographic profile of the 9/11 hijackers, that bin Laden's radical ideology is immune to (is indeed partly a reaction against) Western freedoms.

It's true that Rumsfeld's transformative vision, and the realism animating it, can appear cramped, unfit or even unworthy of the world's sole superpower. But it is not passive, and conservatives of all people should be mindful that the mere existence of coercive power is not an argument for its use. More importantly, the alternatives on offer do not address the challenges confronting the U.S. in an age of transnational terrorism.

Robert Gates may conclude that America needs a larger Army. That's clearly defensible. But if we commit that Army to missions where success hinges on coaxing durable democratic institutions from the rubble, we court future disasters.


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