Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Wrongly re-interpreting Rumsfeld through McNamara

Amidst all the eulogizing of Robert McNamara this week, we find "Learning from McNamara" on the editorial page of yesterday's LA Times. It concludes with this sober recommendation:
McNamara, and Rumsfeld for that matter, demonstrate that even the best and the brightest can fail miserably when they ignore opposing voices or accept only the evidence that fits their preconceptions. That's something the current administration, which has yet to find a challenge it doesn't think it can meet with the application of a little brainpower, should keep in mind.
All of which I agree with, but let's look at how they got there.
Today, pundits like to claim that U.S. mistakes in prosecuting wars in Afghanistan and Iraq are due to a failure to study history. Yet the architects of the Iraq war would be quick to point out that they learned the lessons of Vietnam all too well. It was former Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, after all, who led an effort to rebuild the military into a leaner, more nimble force suited to modern insurgency warfare. Rumsfeld sent in overwhelming force to Iraq, with the intention of crushing resistance within weeks, because he wanted to avoid a grinding, years-long conflict like Vietnam.
Really? A "leaner, more nimble force" was part of Rumsfeld's plan for sure, but what progress did he make toward that goal? The Crusader program got cancelled, sure, and that's the example we always hear. But what else?

And was this really an effort to build a force "suited to modern insurgency warfare"? (Let's leave aside the fact that the U.S. military isn't likely to engage in "insurgency warfare" anytime soon, but rather counterinsurgency warfare. Don't want to nitpick!) Rumsfeld wanted to build a lighter, more mobile force in order to concentrate massive firepower at the enemy's center of gravity. To be clear, we're talking about massed enemy personnel and vehicle formations here, not guerilla fighters. The intent was to build a military that could win another Gulf War-style conflict, only faster, harder, and with even fewer casualties.

And yes, "he wanted to avoid a grinding, years-long conflict like Vietnam;" the way Rumsfeld and Co. meant to do this was to destroy the enemy's military forces and leave before insurgency could pose a challenge, not build a force more suited to the destruction of insurgent forces. Anyone who suggests otherwise has probably been fished in by Larry Di Rita's apologia.

As for having "sent in overwhelming force to Iraq, with the intention of crushing resistance within weeks," this clip highlights Rumsfeld's mistake just as it drives home the misimpression under which the Times editorialists are operating under. For one thing, the force that went to Iraq was only overwhelming when operating against a conventional army. The number of dismounted troops plainly did not meet the minimum threshold to combat an insurgency, nor was the force organized in the most effective manner to perform this mission.

The great error of Rumsfeld and his "tranformational" ilk was to imagine that the destruction of the enemy's military force would constitute victory, and to fail to appreciate that any "grinding, years-long conflict" would necessarily be fought in a manner that the U.S. military was not designed, trained, or equipped to fight most effectively.

I recently saw an article that contrasted Rumsfeld's vision with the Powell Doctrine, which calls for the application of overwhelming force with a clear objective and a developed exit strategy if U.S. troops are ever to be committed. Rumsfeld, it was suggested, wanted to go fast and light rather than sending in big numbers. This is a fair distinction, but at root the two men wanted the same thing: the scientific application of force to the enemy's decision points or center of gravity, the rapid destruction of the enemy's command and control and toppling of his leadership, and fundamentally, certain victory. You can't fault them for trying, but don't we all know better by now?

(An ironic addendum here is that this sort of scientific application of doctrine to war in the search of certain victory is exactly what the COIN set is accused of by Gian Gentile. I guess we never stop trying to figure out a way to make war easy.)


  1. "The Crusader program got cancelled, sure, and that's the example we always hear. But what else?"

    He also cancelled the Comanche helicopter, following the request of the Army. Other programs he delayed so that others would make cuts, including FCS.

    To understand why this is so, one must come to terms with what "Transformation" was expected to do: Not so much produce more expensive systems, but rather to create platforms that would rely on fewer people to man them, repair them, purchase them, and whatnot.

    What Rumsfeld really worried about were the labor costs (especially "legacy" expenditures) that come with having a large, bloated, inefficient organization, not at all like your streamlined "Ink Spots" cartel, I assure you.

    To pare these costs, he trimmed the number and size of our overseas bases, pruning them long after the Cold War ended and made many of them redundant.

    To get more out of our civilian and uniformed elites, he also pushed the Adaptive Planning Initiative as means to get more out of less.

    Like McNamara, when Rummie arrived he believed that his cardinal pursuit would be "Transformation" of DoD to something more efficient, cost-effective and manageable. Twin wars after 9/11 intruded for Rumsfeld, just as Vietnam and the rest of the Cold War intervened during McNamara's reign.

    A longtime criticism of McNamara wasn't that he was a brow-beating micromanager, but rather that he gave military leaders at the services too much say without much accountability. I'm not sure that was the sentiment about McNamara.

    The notion that "Transformation" was designed to win another "Gulf War" also isn't exactly accurate. What Rumsfeld would say is that he didn't contemplate why we would want to spend hundreds of billions of dollars, waste thousands of lives and otherwise destroy a great deal of our materiel and capacity for other military efforts in order to referee longterm, endemic civil wars in areas outside of our strategic interests.

    It wasn't so much that he was following the Powell notion of failing to structure a military that could do what we used to term "OoTW" campaigns, but rather that he agreed there was little sagacity in doing them -- they were expensive, bloody, long and, inevitably, never worth our time or trouble.

    How wrong was Rummie there? He was a Realist, in reality not so different from the darling of the left, Zbigniew Brzezinski, albeit more likely to grin instead of snarl.

    The force structure for OIF following the Polo Step process was built in order to fit the mission: Get in, then quickly prop up some convenient Iraqi expat stooge, and get out.

    If that was the oplan, then the correct force was used. If the oplan changed, then the force structure, training, doctrine, et al, would need to change, too.

    The real problem was that OSD and the White House were divided by schools within both that wanted to do different missions in Iraq. Rumsfeld had prepared for one sort of campaign, and never fully invested in the other.

    That's quite different from the mission creep McNamara encountered, it seems to me. Rumsfeld knew from early 2004 on that we needed to leave Iraq, that the mission being forced on him was radically opposed to the original oplan, and that he likely had the wrong commander, force and troop levels to do a campaign like the Baghdad "Surge," even if he had signed off on an earlier iteration of it under Chiarelli. He also didn't believe that he was the right man to lead DoD if the war in Iraq was expanded.

    He told his superiors (President and Veep) this and was fired.

    That's, again, somewhat different from the McNamara years.

  2. SNLII--I agree but why didn't he get fired earlier than November 2006? If he first expressed this view in early 2004, why did it take almost three years for him to be replaced?

    I also think that directing planners not to prepare for other scenarios, systematically ignoring the advice of interagency partners, and generally operating in denial--which he did if he knew in 2004 that things were not going his "way" should have been cause for dismissal.

  3. SNLII -- He also cancelled the Comanche helicopter, following the request of the Army. Other programs he delayed so that others would make cuts, including FCS.

    First of all, considering the entire body of work, I don't see any reason to believe that Rumsfeld was anything but fully supportive of FCS. You have any kind of documentation on this?

    Second, like you said, the Army called for the cancellation of Comanche. Rumsfeld just signed off on it. Of course he could've refused, but it's disingenuous to suggest (and I don't think you are here) that he was responsible for the cut.

    And Bradley Graham's book suggests that Rumsfeld had to be badgered into the Crusader decision by staff.

    You're of course correct about Rumsfeld's intention to lower operating costs, but let's be serious about the way of war that he envisioned facilitating those savings.

    The force structure for OIF following the Polo Step process was built in order to fit the mission: Get in, then quickly prop up some convenient Iraqi expat stooge, and get out.

    Yes, sure. But as the Secretary of Defense, he's responsible to the President to develop operational and contingency plans that help to accomplish the nation's political objectives. We can hold the President accountable for a failure to appropriately express his wishes, or for a failure to even consider what sort of force he might wish for, but we also have to hold the Department accountable for what Gentile now calls "doctrine as strategy": in offering Polo Step, DoD demonstrated its understanding of strategic necessities to be totally out of whack with the political aims mandated by the whole "War on Terror" construct. The strong-man approach wasn't going to work for the President, but somehow in the year and half between 9/11 and the invasion of Iraq, we couldn't figure out a new oplan. This was a clear failure.