Donald Rumsfeld’s self-inflicted wounds

Frederick W. Kagan is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and the author of "Finding the Target: The Transformation of the American Military."

DONALD RUMSFELD had the chance to be one of the great American heroes of all time. He held office at a moment of enormous danger. He had many admirable qualities necessary for success. But like the tragic heroes of old, hubris and inflexibility made vices of his virtues, leading to his own fall and the collapse of his life’s work.

Rumsfeld was in many ways ideally suited to be secretary of Defense in the wake of 9/11. His experience in the same position under President Ford and as ambassador to NATO seemed to fit him to the task of overseeing a complex military coalition. His determination and self-confidence were essential in a wartime secretary -- and unusual in recent times. When he showed, early in his tenure, that he meant to take positive control of the Pentagon’s sprawling bureaucracy, many observers cheered. This was precisely the sort of man the nation needed at the military’s helm at a time of crisis.

As former CIA Director Robert Gates prepares to succeed Rumsfeld, the chorus is already rising to declare that Gates must be more open to advice from the military, more of a consensus-builder than a tyrant. Perhaps. It isn’t clear how a more open secretary of Defense would have fared given the advice the military gave Rumsfeld.


Belief in the value of technology and the need for light, swift ground forces pervaded the senior military leadership in the 1990s. Then-Army Chief of Staff Gen. Eric Shinseki had launched an ambitious program to “lighten” the Army and equip it with advanced precision weapons. Shinseki certainly warned that more troops would be needed to secure Iraq in the wake of major combat operations. But Gen. Tommy Franks, the commander who developed and executed the actual war plan, wanted fewer. Many officers opposed the “light footprint” approach with which Rumsfeld tackled the problem of the Iraqi insurgency -- but not Gen. John Abizaid, who took over from Franks right after the end of major combat operations. A secretary of Defense who encouraged discussion and dissent would have perhaps anticipated more of the flaws in the policies he was proposing. Still, the strategy that has led to disaster in Iraq belonged to the commanders at least as much as to Rumsfeld. Scapegoating him in isolation will prevent us from learning the essential lessons of our recent failures.

For the problem with Rumsfeld was not his flawed managerial style, but his flawed understanding of war. Early in his term, he became captive of an idea. He would transform the U.S. military in accord with the most advanced theories of the 1990s to prepare it for the challenges of the future. He was not alone in his captivity. As a candidate, President Bush announced the same program in 1999 -- long before anyone thought Don Rumsfeld would return as secretary of Defense. The program, quite simply, was to rely on information technology to permit American forces to locate, identify, track and destroy any target on the face of the Earth from thousands of miles away. Ideally, ground forces would not be necessary in future wars. If they were, it would be in small numbers, widely dispersed, moving rapidly and engaging in little close combat. This vision defined U.S. military theory throughout the 1990s, and it has gone deep into our military culture. Rumsfeld’s advent hastened and solidified its triumph, but his departure will not lead instantly to its collapse.

At its root, this “transformation program” is not a program for war at all. War is the use of force to achieve a political purpose, against a thinking enemy and involving human populations. Political aims cannot normally be achieved simply by destroying targets. But the transformation that enthusiasts of the 1990s focused too narrowly on destroyed the enemy’s military with small, lean and efficient forces. This captivated Rumsfeld, becoming his passion. He meant it to be his legacy. It was the fatal flaw in this vision that led, in part, to the debacle in Iraq. Focused on destroying the enemy’s military quickly and efficiently, Rumsfeld refused to consider the political complexities that would follow that destruction. He and Franks pared the invasion force down to the smallest level that could defeat Saddam Hussein’s army, but refused to consider the chaos that would follow the collapse of Hussein’s government. This failure is inherent in the military thought of the 1990s. Rumsfeld did not invent it. He simply executed it.

Having made the mistake of failing to plan for achieving the political goals of the Iraq war, Rumsfeld then compounded his error. The war in Iraq threatened military transformation. It was expensive and sucked scarce defense resources away from transformational programs. It was manpowerintensive and hindered Rumsfeld’s efforts to reorient the military away from a focus on land power. It was intellectually distracting; counterinsurgency has little to do with transformation. Here Rumsfeld’s virtues became his greatest vices. Instead of recognizing the danger of losing Iraq, he remained committed to transforming the military to meet undefined future threats, spending billions of dollars preparing to fight Enemy X in 2025. He consistently opposed increasing the size of the ground forces, despite the obvious growing strains on the Army and the Marines of repeated deployments to Afghanistan and Iraq.

He fought to keep expensive weapons systems, such as the F-22 fighter jet and the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, which were billed as “transformational” because they used precision-guided munitions to strike remote targets. That money could have been used for better armored vehicles, more body armor and more soldiers. The same determination that had seemed so promising when he first took over became a stubborn refusal to change course in a storm.

Rumsfeld has paid a high price for this failure. He will not be known as the secretary of Defense who transformed the military, but as the secretary of Defense who, at best, nearly lost the Iraq war. Worse still, his stubbornness has destroyed the ground forces. The Army and Marines have worn out their equipment and their troops. Units must swap tanks and Humvees just to be able to train. The Army brass recently leaked the fact that only the units that are in Iraq or about to deploy to Iraq are combat-ready -- an unprecedented military crisis. Rumsfeld leaves behind him a military far weaker and less capable than the one he took charge of in 2001.


The greatest irony of all is that the military Rumsfeld has destroyed is the one he created. He was secretary of Defense in the mid-1970s as the military was shifting from conscription to the all-volunteer force. He shepherded the volunteer military through its early growing pains and supported it valiantly against its many critics. Perfecting it through transformation was to be the culmination of his life’s work. The damage he has done to it instead is his tragedy -- and the nation’s.