A Memo That Speaks Volumes

Gideon Rose is the managing editor of Foreign Affairs.

The publication last week of a confidential memo from Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld pressing aides to come up with new ideas for fighting the war on terror brought a depressingly predictable reaction.

Critics of the Bush administration pointed to the memo’s bleak assessment of the current situation (“mixed results” against Al Qaeda, a “long, hard slog” ahead in Afghanistan and Iraq) and contrasted it with the administration’s more optimistic public statements. Rumsfeld defenders, meanwhile, argued that the memo’s tough questions revealed a praiseworthy drive and lack of complacency. (A third camp of conspiracy theorists agreed that the memo cast Rumsfeld in a good light and reasoned from this that the whole episode had probably been choreographed by his office.)

Both the blame and the praise were legitimate, but hardly reason to get excited. Most serious observers, after all, have long seen the administration’s relentless happy talk about progress in Iraq and elsewhere as spin, so they can hardly claim to have been shocked when it was openly revealed as such. And given the difficulties the administration has encountered in its reconstruction efforts, it would be surprising if Rumsfeld was not searching for new policy options.


Ironically, the most interesting aspect of the memo has been largely overlooked. Its few bracing paragraphs offer evidence not only of Rumsfeld’s strengths but also his glaring weaknesses. Perceptive enough to see the true dimensions of the problem at hand, he appears utterly incapable of understanding how to solve it.

The memo correctly distinguishes between the short-term struggle -- a battle to the death between existing forces on either side -- and the long-term one, in which the size and composition of the opposing forces can change over time. It correctly points to nonmilitary factors, such as the success of “the madrasas and the radical clerics” in the Muslim world, as the crucial factor driving the number of future enemies. And it draws a correct conclusion from these points, that in addition to its current counter-terrorism policies the United States needs “a broad, integrated plan to stop the next generation of terrorists.”

But rather than exploring how external and internal conditions might shape the demand for and supply of radical Islamism, the memo remains stuck in an intellectual rut, limited by a crudely conventional “hard power” outlook. The possibilities it floats -- a leaner and more agile U.S. military, pressure on the madrasas’ funders, covert operations to “entice” the madrasas “to a more moderate course” -- are all essentially negative. They focus on coercion or manipulation, displaying the cynical worldview captured in the Vietnam-era quip “grab ‘em by the balls and their hearts and minds will follow.”

Rumsfeld seems unable to see that the radicals’ success is made possible by the weakness, brutality and incompetence of the governments they confront, and that the only way to beat the madrasas is by offering attractive alternatives to the millenarian escapism they peddle. Helping to build healthy polities across the broader Middle East; helping to provide decent educations, jobs and life prospects to ordinary citizens of the countries in question; leading international coalitions that foreigners actually want to join rather than ones they have to be bullied into supporting -- that such actions might be crucial to the larger struggle is simply not the sort of thing Rumsfeld ponders.

In a well-ordered administration, of course, this might not matter. There can be virtue, of course, in having Cabinet members stick to their lathes. If the secretary of Defense manages combat well, the fact that he thinks little of nation-building, repeatedly alienates the rest of the world and chooses bigoted religious zealots for top positions wouldn’t matter much, because he wouldn’t be in charge of political and economic development, diplomacy or intercultural relations.

In the Bush administration, however, the Defense Department -- in conjunction with the vice president’s office -- seems to be running the show, and so the limitations the memo reveals are more than a bit disturbing.

Not content with dominating U.S. foreign policy to a greater extent than any predecessor in memory, moreover, Rumsfeld and his supporters are now complaining that problems have arisen because they have too little power, rather than too much. As one “senior government official” told a reporter in the memo’s defense, “Who was responsible for winning the Cold War? The military. Who is responsible for winning the global war on terror? Everybody. The military. The State Department. The Central Intelligence Agency. Justice and Customs have a big piece. When everybody is responsible, nobody is accountable.”

Casual readers might assume that this Alice-in-Wonderland view of history represents a slip of the tongue. Surely it was “everybody” who was responsible for winning the Cold War, as the Soviet Union collapsed after being hemmed in by nearly half a century of multilateral political, ideological, economic and strategic containment. And surely it is “the military” that has dominated the prosecution of the war on terror, jealously keeping other agencies and countries at arm’s length.

But no, this is what the Rumsfeld crowd really seems to believe: that the U.S. military alone won the Cold War, and that the solution to current problems lies in giving it an even more unfettered hand today.

Luckily, the White House doesn’t seem to be buying this line. The secretary of Defense might even discover that when your only tool is a sword, you can end up having to fall on it.