Outgoing Defense secretary was determined to make his mark by transforming the military, but the Iraq war overshadowed that goal.
The fate of great nations turns on the fulcrum of tumultuous events. Thus, as the death toll mounts in Iraq and the United States confronts a host of foreign-policy crises, Washington was transfixed earlier this month by the machinery of auspicious change.
In the Senate Hart Office Building on December 5, Republicans and Democrats unanimously sent the nomination of Robert Gates as the new secretary of Defense to the Senate floor with a sense of collective relief, less impressed by any particular entry on his long resume than by who the man was not.
Notably, Gates was not someone wedded to a rose-tinted view of Iraq. ("Do you think we are currently winning in Iraq?" asked Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich. "No, sir," replied Gates.)
He was not an advocate of transformational wars of "shock and awe" fought by very lean U.S. forces. (Asked by Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., if he was familiar with, and a believer in, the Powell Doctrine of overwhelming force, put forward by former Joint Chiefs Chairman and Secretary of State Colin Powell, Gates said, "Yes, sir.")
He was not a jealous bureaucratic infighter determined to cut other agencies out of the decision-making loop on matters of national consequence. ("One of the most significant lessons I've learned is the importance of the entire government pulling together as a team," Gates said. "When the secretary of State and secretary of Defense are not speaking to each other, it actually matters.")
By all appearances Gates is also a traditionalist who really believes in the value of bipartisan outreach to Congress. ("I see it as one of my priorities ... to do what I can, working with members of Congress from both parties, to forge the kind of bipartisan approach that will convince everyone around the world who wishes us ill that we're united and committed as a nation.")
He even promised to value the counsel of the military professionals under his command. ("I've learned over time ... that when you treat the professionals in an organization who perform the core mission with respect, and listen to them and pay attention to them, everyone is better served. They were there before you got there, and they'll be there after you leave.")
In short, Robert Gates came off as the un-revolutionary. He seemed less a man of fierce ideological vision or the prideful agent of change than an old-style Washington pragmatist and consensus builder, an endangered species of late in the capital.
Whereas in 1991 he had to wait almost six months to be confirmed as the director of Central Intelligence, last week -- after decisively stepping out of the long shadow of his predecessor -- Gates was overwhelmingly confirmed by the Senate in a single day.
Perhaps Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said it best in welcoming him on board a listing ship of state. "I'd like to offer you my congratulations," he said. "And my condolences."
Iraq will be Gates's first and most daunting priority. President Bush has been decidedly cool so far to the Iraq Study Group's major proposals on regional diplomacy and a drawdown of U.S. forces. But even if Bush rejects the recommendations of the panel led by former Secretary of State James Baker and former Democratic Rep. Lee Hamilton, the study highlights just how little maneuvering room is left for the new Defense secretary -- and anyone else -- to fashion a bipartisan and viable exit strategy from Iraq.
One consequence of the post-9/11 period and the occupation of Iraq is that U.S. political and military leaders now face dwindling options and diminishing influence in that country. The U.S. military can shift most security responsibilities to Iraqi security forces by early 2008, for instance; but even if the Pentagon follows the Iraq Study Group's recommendation and increases the number of U.S. trainers fivefold, the Iraqi forces almost certainly will not be ready to assume the burden by then.
And the report's caveat that "unexpected developments on the ground" could alter plans to withdraw U.S. troops is a pretty good description of the entire Iraq enterprise to date. There's little reason to doubt that next year will prove any different. U.S. officials could talk with Iran and Syria about Iraq, as Baker-Hamilton recommended, but they will be doing so from a position of well-recognized weakness.
Meanwhile, an option, which the Joint Chiefs are studying now, to temporarily increase U.S. troop levels in Iraq has already run up against the reality that U.S. ground forces are stretched dangerously thin and face a readiness crisis because of worn and damaged equipment and inadequate resources. Other options reportedly under the Joint Chiefs' review include refocusing U.S. forces on Al Qaeda in Iraq or backing the Shiite majority; both approaches point to a tacit acceptance of worsening sectarian violence in Iraq.
These hard truths are now inescapable addenda to the legacy of outgoing Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. Originally determined to leave his mark by transforming the military, Rumsfeld has seen a war for which he was an early advocate and the chief architect overshadow his goal.
"This is sad, but it needs to be said: Donald Rumsfeld is a patriot and a charismatic leader, but his legacy will be one of bad judgment and arrogance that has put this country in a position of great strategic peril," said retired Army Gen. Barry McCaffrey, a former four-star commander and decorated veteran of Vietnam who recently briefed Bush on Iraq.
Because Rumsfeld was unwilling to listen to voices of experience in uniform, McCaffrey said, the Defense secretary made "monumental mistakes" in Iraq.
"Then as things started to go badly, Rumsfeld and his team went from arrogance to denial, disingenuousness, and finally blatant lying about the state of things in Iraq and inside the U.S. military," McCaffrey said, noting that virtually all Army and Marine Corps ground units not already deployed to war zones or preparing to do so are rated as "unready" because of an acute lack of equipment to train on. "And if Iraq turns out badly, it will be worse than Vietnam. It will open another generational wound in a U.S. military that spilled its blood in vain, and it will badly damage America's standing in a region that is absolutely vital to our strategic interests."
When Gates sits down in his third-floor office in the Pentagon's E Ring to pore over the various strategic reviews of Iraq, virtually all of them will include accelerating the training of Iraqi security forces so that U.S. forces can shift more quickly to a supporting role. The Iraq Study Group suggests a major increase in embedded U.S. trainers, for instance, from the 3,000 to 4,000 who are now working with Iraqi forces to as many as 20,000.
However, the lasting repercussion of two related decisions made by Rumsfeld will greatly constrain Gates's ability to get a wobbly Iraqi security force on its feet by early 2008: disbanding the Iraqi army after the toppling of Saddam Hussein, and devoting scant resources and personnel to the effort to replace it with something more to the Pentagon's liking.
"We have no choice other than to make this process work, and some of these [Iraqi army and national police forces] are some of the bravest and most fearless rascals I've ever seen," said a U.S. general now in Iraq and involved in the training of Iraqi forces, speaking on condition of anonymity. "There's no question, however, that we're still taking baby steps; and if we're making a course correction, it had better be the 'Long Course' that has us standing shoulder to shoulder with these forces for quite some years to come. Because anyone who wants to put a timeline on this is likely to be proven wrong."
Anthony Cordesman is the longtime Middle East expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. During a recent research trip to Iraq, he noted that the Iraqi army and police forces still cannot function in large areas, even in the capital city of Baghdad. That fact more than any other explains the preponderance of militias and armed groups that continue to fill the security vacuum around the country.
"In its reporting and testimony to Congress," Cordesman said, "the Defense Department has systematically exaggerated the capabilities of the Iraqi army, national police, and police forces to the point of dishonesty; and the reality is that out of the Iraqi battalions supposedly ready to take the lead in operations, only a small fraction actually exist and have combat capability."
Of the 112 Iraqi army battalions now on paper, Cordesman estimated that only 20 to 30 are functional. On some days, many battalions have only 30 percent of their authorized personnel. "The development of Iraqi security forces is critical, and we're making progress. But this talk of them [being able to shoulder the primary burden of combat operations] even in 18 to 24 months is simply dishonest."
The study group recommends that, to achieve a reconciliation between warring Shiite and Sunni factions, U.S. officials pressure the Iraqi government to meet firm milestones. Absent such a political deal, virtually no expert believes that U.S. or Iraqi forces will be able to stanch the sectarian violence that is ravaging the country.
For months, however, U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad in Baghdad and other U.S. officials have been working behind the scenes to pressure Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki and other factional leaders into reaching such a deal, with no success. Their frustration was behind the leaked memo written by National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley.
In the memo, Hadley said last month that al-Maliki was either misrepresenting his good intentions, ignorant of the alarming facts on the ground in Iraq, or incapable of taking decisive action to bolster reconciliation and end militia violence.
A retired senior general noted: "Back in December of 2004, President Bush was given a briefing in which senior military commanders told him that the Sunni insurgents think they are winning, and that the available evidence backs up that conclusion as true."
He continued: "Because the Sunnis think they're winning, they have no overriding incentive to join the political process, and the Shiites really don't want them in the government anyway. So we have essentially pushed democracy on a political culture that was not ready for it. That is now painfully obvious."
That question of the true nature of Iraq's "unity government" also looms large over the Joint Chiefs' current internal review on Iraq. If the assumption that Iraqi political leaders want a unified government that will respect the rights of minorities turns out to be mistaken, U.S. military officers know they may be training and equipping security forces that could be wielded as sectarian clubs in Iraq's civil strife.
"My biggest concern is the fundamental assumption that Iraq's government is willing to place the nation's interests above sectarian interests, because if that turns out to be wrong, then you have to challenge everything we are doing in Iraq," said a source knowledgeable about the Joint Chiefs' deliberations. "If the Iraqi government is actually being manipulated by people pursuing a sectarian Shiite agenda, and consolidating power within the ministries to the disadvantage of the minority Sunnis, then at some point we are going to be eating a real shit sandwich in Iraq."
In pushing for diplomatic outreach to Iraq's neighbors, including Syria and Iran, the study group's co-chairman Baker has repeatedly pointed out that U.S. officials opened secret negotiation channels with Tehran just after 9/11, and that Iran responded favorably. However, with the post-9/11 wind at its back and the rapid toppling of the Taliban, the United States used its moment of maximum coercive strength and leverage to threaten pre-emptive "regime change" against any member of the "axis of evil" that did not amend its behavior. That included Iran.
Today, the situation is far different. The U.S. military is obviously stretched thin and bogged down in Iraq, and public approval of Bush's handling of the war has plummeted to 23 percent in a recent poll. Meanwhile, Tehran is flush with oil money, relieved of two regional adversaries (Saddam's regime and the Taliban), and determined to push its advantages and spread its influence through proxies in Lebanon, the Palestinian territories, and Iraq.
"Anyone foolish enough to suggest negotiations with Iran on how they could prove helpful to us in Iraq should have to write the talking points for such a meeting," said Richard Perle, a former head of the Defense Policy Board and a resident fellow at the neoconservative American Enterprise Institute.
Despite all of candidate Bush's rhetoric in the 2000 campaign about coming to the rescue of an overstretched military, Rumsfeld bequeaths to his successor a U.S. military whose ground forces are on the brink of exhaustion. Partly, this development is the unavoidable consequence of unforeseen, post-9/11 conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Two years ago, when those strains on a trimmed-down, post-Cold War force became apparent, however, Rumsfeld and his top military leaders gambled that the large deployments to Iraq were a "spike" rather than a "plateau" in operations, and thus he firmly resisted calls in Congress to increase the size of the military, the Army in particular.
Like so many of the other gambles that Rumsfeld and the Office of the Secretary of Defense took in planning for the Iraq invasion, that one looks today like a sure loser.
As a result of demands that have kept 140,000 troops in Iraq, the U.S. Army has been forced to decrease the downtime between combat deployments to 15 months and even less in some cases, a rate that crippled the service's professional noncommissioned officer corps during Vietnam.
After suffering one of the worst recruiting years in decades in 2005, the Army made its recruiting goal in fiscal 2006 by adding 3,000 recruiters, increasing enlistment bonuses, upping the age limit of potential enlistees to 42, and lowering recruiting standards for performance on aptitude tests.
"When Rumsfeld took office, a lot of us cheered that here was someone who was going to take control of the U.S. military and help transform it. But you have to say that because of a number of bad judgments, the force Rumsfeld is handing off to Secretary Gates is de facto much weaker than the one he inherited," said Fredrick Kagan, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and a former military historian at West Point. "The soldiers are tired, equipment is worn out, and the force is still being asked to do too many things without sufficient resources."
That dynamic came to a head this past summer, when the Army took the unusual step of refusing to submit a long-term budget on August 15 as required by the Defense Department. Army leaders simply saw no way to realistically work within the budget number assigned to them by the White House.
As a result of the ensuing negotiations with Rumsfeld's office and the Office of Management and Budget, the Army received an extra $7 billion in fiscal 2008 and promises of much more money to come later, especially from an emergency supplemental request that is expected to reach an eye-popping $130-plus billion next year.
Army officials know that surviving on massive emergency supplemental bills is unsustainable in the long run, an affront to fiscal discipline, and an impediment to honest debate about the total cost of the war.
"There's no question that the lines between the base budget and supplementals has really blurred, and it's fair to ask whether we are losing discipline in the budget process as a result," said a senior Army source with knowledge of the budget negotiations. Because supplemental spending doesn't compete with highways, education, and other discretionary spending, he notes, it doesn't get the same level of congressional scrutiny.
"I worry that this heavy reliance on supplementals disenfranchises the American people from the war effort by hiding the true costs and avoiding a discussion about how we as a people are going to pay for them," he said. "Should we raise the gas tax? Implement oil conservation measures? That kind of discussion might stimulate debate and convince the public that everyone has a stake in this fight. I will also tell you that if we're really in a plateau in terms of the size of our deployments, given our present recruiting and readiness problems we should strongly consider permanently increasing the size of the Army."
A Mixed Record
As for Rumsfeld's vaunted campaign to "transform" the U.S. military, many experts give him mixed reviews. Achievements include increased experimentation in joint operations through the Joint Forces Command; a realignment of the U.S. military's global footprint of bases; increased focus on, and resources for, Special Forces and intelligence-gathering; a modular, more expeditionary Army; and accelerated deployment of a national missile defense system.
"Rumsfeld forced a level of change on the U.S. military that had defied every secretary before him and did an awful lot of good for the U.S. military, but ultimately the same characteristics that made him a perfect agent of change in peacetime got him into a lot of trouble in Iraq," said Dan Goure, a defense expert at the Lexington Institute, a defense consulting company. "He gave no deference to other views and thus proceeded with a number of cockeyed ideas -- that we'd be greeted as liberators in Iraq; that we could replay the occupations of Germany and Japan; and that we wouldn't face an insurgency. Indeed, his whole approach to the Middle East and our allies got us into huge trouble."
As an example, Rumsfeld's determination to make Iraq the first "transformational war" fought on a grand scale, with lean forces, rapid maneuver, and precision-strike capabilities substituting for overwhelming force, has continually come back to haunt the U.S. military as it has settled into a long counterinsurgency campaign in Iraq.
"Under Rumsfeld's guidance and strategy, we fought the wars of regime change in Afghanistan and Iraq almost as you would engage in a coup d'etat, rather than a war of attrition or occupation, and the early phases of those wars demonstrated the initial power of that approach," said Hans Binnendijk, director of the Center for Technology and National Security Policy at the National Defense University. While transformational war overthrew those regimes, he noted, it never really defeated enemies that in both cases re-emerged as determined insurgencies.
"That made the post-major-hostilities period extremely hard to manage," he said. "And Rumsfeld was slow in coming to see the unintended consequences of his approach and the need to focus seriously on that critical part of the mission."
Andrew Krepinevich is the executive director of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments in Washington.
"When you look at Rumsfeld, you certainly get a sense of deja vu with the Robert McNamara legacy in Vietnam. Like Rumsfeld, McNamara used modern management and program-planning techniques to fundamentally transform how the services did business, but the arrogant and condescending way he went about trying to effect change left him without many friends in Washington or in uniform once things started to go sour in Vietnam," Krepinevich said. "Rumsfeld's legacy also calls to mind the comment LBJ once made that the Great Society programs were the woman he loved, but he was left with that whore of a war in Vietnam. Transformation was the woman Rumsfeld loved, but he'll be left with a legacy of Iraq."
Such is the power of Rumsfeld's outsized personality, and the indelible imprint he has left on the Iraq war and the U.S. military, that his presence was unmistakably felt in recent weeks even in his absence from the spotlight. It was there in the almost palpable relief of Republicans and Democrats alike in their embrace of the conciliatory and even-tempered Gates.
Rumsfeld's stewardship of the Iraq war helps explain the very existence of the Iraq Study Group, which some Bush supporters privately viewed as a dangerous outsourcing of a commander-in-chief's most fundamental prerogatives. According to many top Republicans, Rumsfeld's continued prominence on the national stage in the run-up to November's elections even explains why Democrats are assuming leadership of both chambers of Congress in January.
Indeed, as he takes final leave of the national stage, Rumsfeld has achieved an iconic status, becoming a sort of walking Rorschach test for how people view the Iraq war and the Bush administration's stewardship of the post-9/11 era.
For traditional conservatives, Rumsfeld is the misunderstood champion whom history will eventually vindicate, an agent of needed change whose very cantankerousness and irascibility were a badge of courage.
"Basically in Washington, you have a choice of casting a wide political net and trying to make lots of friends and bring them along to your way of thinking, which often leads to 'lowest-common-denominator' approaches," said Baker Spring, a national security expert at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank. "Rumsfeld had the courage to try and do what he judged was right in terms of adapting the military to the post-Cold War era, and to take the heat from those who disagreed."
For neoconservatives who were the Iraq war's strongest proponents, several of whom held influential positions in the Pentagon and the Bush administration before the Iraq war, Rumsfeld was the proud standard-bearer who ultimately betrayed the cause by lacking sufficient ardor and competence to transplant democracy to Iraq. "I think Donald Rumsfeld will look a lot better with the passage of time, because people will come to appreciate that many of the decisions surrounding Iraq were collective, and the main errors were not his," Perle, the prominent neoconservative intellectual, told National Journal. "Having said that, almost every critical decision we made in the first few months in Iraq was wrong. We missed obvious things like not allowing the government to be looted and torched, and then hoped to restore order after we just watched the dismantlement of the institutions of order. That was an unbelievably shortsighted response to a situation that any 6-year-old should have been able to understand."
For liberals, Rumsfeld will go down as the public face of one of the most ill-advised wars in U.S. history, and a leader whose hubris masked a deeply flawed understanding of the world.
"After 9/11, people really wanted President Bush to succeed, and they believed him when he insisted there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq and that we needed to export democracy there," said Rep. Maxine Waters, D-Calif. "As a result, Rumsfeld got away with mismanaging the Iraq war far longer than would otherwise have been the case. I think he will go down as the single most influential Defense secretary in our history for guiding us into a war that has put America at great risk."
Not My War
Some senior military leaders inside the Pentagon say they have reached a sort of truce and accommodation with Rumsfeld after a few very rocky years at the start of his most recent tenure. Others will never forgive him for ignoring and even ridiculing their advice, and for leading them into Iraq with too few troops and no plan for an extended occupation.
Army Maj. Gen. John Batiste served in Iraq under Rumsfeld's leadership and was part of the group of generals who called for his resignation earlier this year. "It was Rumsfeld's strategy that took us to war, and his arrogance that kept the United States from addressing mistakes in a timely manner," said Batiste, who believes that the Bush administration continues to understate the magnitude of the task in Iraq.
"Under Rumsfeld's leadership we've fought the Iraq war on the cheap, tasked the military with doing things other branches of government should have been doing, and inconvenienced the American people as little as possible. He watered down the Geneva Conventions with respect to the treatment of detainees, which led directly to Abu Ghraib and hundreds of other similar incidents. The net result of those mistakes is that we've created a failed state in Iraq," Batiste said.
While Washington was transfixed by confirmation hearings, bipartisan reports, and high-level war councils, Rumsfeld himself was making a quiet exit, going around thanking staffers for their hard work and support and holding a final "town hall" meeting at the Pentagon on December 11.
He overrode close aides who hoped he would hang onto the office a few more weeks and become the longest-serving Defense secretary in history. Such personal aggrandizements, he insisted, had no place in a time of war when troops deserved better than a lame-duck leader. These were exactly the kinds of magnanimous gestures that so often eluded Rumsfeld at the height of his influence.
One official, for example, recalled asking Rumsfeld to thank staff members who had spent an entire holiday weekend working long hours to prepare a briefing for him. Rumsfeld's reported reply: "If you start praising them, then they come to expect it."
"Donald Rumsfeld never liked schmoozing, small talk, or idle pleasantries, and when he didn't like doing something, he just didn't do it," said Kenneth Adelman, a former Pentagon official and a longtime Rumsfeld friend.
Of all the contradictions in Rumsfeld's eventful tenure, the one that Adelman and other friends find most difficult to explain was his gradual disengagement from the war after micromanaging the triumphal invasion. As the war ground down into an extended and bloody counterinsurgency, Rumsfeld became strangely removed from even important decisions.
"As the war dragged on, there was this tendency [on Rumsfeld's part] to say, that was not my plan or recommendation, but rather it was this general's or that general's call. There was a tendency to deflect responsibility onto the military that I had never seen before," Adelman said. "I worked for Donald Rumsfeld three times in my career. We used to take vacations together. And I've thought for three years about his growing disengagement from the Iraq war. I still can't understand it."