Wednesday, January 05, 2005

Witness for the Prosecution

A couple of weeks ago I began to work on a piece regarding two defences of Donald Rumsfeld that appeared in the American print media on the same day - the first in the form of an editorial in the Washington Times, the second in the form of an opinion piece by Newt Gingrich in the Christian Science Monitor. Having given up on this, I was spurred on to revisit the matter by this Mac Owens article at NRO.

Both of the first two pieces make some fairly good points. The Owens article, of which more later, is a cut above the rest and has much to commend it. However, it seems to me that - like other articles I've flagged up recently - they fail to engage with the actual arguments being put forward by those who believe that Donald Rumsfeld should not be in his job. Instead they flag up other aspects of Rumsfeld's record which are not key to most of the attacks being launched against him.

Dancing all night with your hand on my ass

The Washington Times piece is particularly shoddy and I think some of the specific points raised in it need to be tackled head on:

Mr. Rumsfeld is arguably the best defense secretary since the position was
created in 1947.

Yeah, and I arguably combine the sexual magnetism of Colin Farrell with the wit of Jackie Mason and the literary talent of John Updike, but it's not an argument I'd particularly like to see exposed to public scrutiny.

Let me declare an interest right away. For reasons I shall note later, I think Donald Rumsfeld should have been fired long before the recent presidential election. That the man is still in his job is as strange a phenomenon to me as the eccentric notion that root beer tastes of something any sane man would want to have in his mouth. But I am prepared to recognise that Mr Rumsfeld is not without achievements and is not without his good points. He is undoubtedly a dedicated public servant and has sacrificed wildly lucrative private sector employment in order to spend his latter years in service, though it ought to be noted that George C. Marshall, who also spent a spell as Defence Secretary, was hands down the greatest American public servant of the 20th century (I assume that Ann Coulter and her fellow Joe McCarthy boosters would disagree, which only serves to strengthen my conviction in this regard). While one may disagree with the specifics of Rumsfeld's transformation policies, in principle he has a vision and that vision is probably in the right ball park. He has been prepared to butt heads with vested interests and to get things done. His ideas for re-basing American troops are arguably overdue and based on sound principles. He has also, I think it's probably been fair to say, shown wisdom in some of his appointments - I'm thinking especially of General Schoomaker. So much for the creamy goodness, let's take a look at the rest.

He has rebuilt the U.S. military, which has freed 50 million people from
tyranny, decimated al Qaeda, won two wars and is busily consolidating the second
of those.

I'm no fan of Bill Clinton, but to read this one might be forgiven for assuming that when Mr Rumsfeld came into office the U.S. armed forces were the military equivalent of a beggar child on the streets of Calcutta. That's not actually the case. To accept most of the Times' premise, one has to assume that without Don Rumsfeld the US would have lost in conventional operations in Afghanistan. I see no evidence of this. Lest we forget, Mr Rumsfeld had been in office a matter of months when the Afghanistan operations took place. Are we really to believe those months made the difference between victory and defeat? No. Not only that, but the U.S. armed forces won at the operational and tactical level because of the professionalism and fighting spirit of their soldiers. To attribute all this to Rumsfeld is a nonsense. One may as well provide an assessment of the Falklands War via gushing references to John Nott. The sphere in which Mr Rumsfeld has had the most impact is the strategic sphere and it is noteworthy that this area - that of translating tactical and operational success into strategic gains - is where the USA has consistently run into serious problems. The Afghan victory is at best imperfect and the nature of the post conflict settlement and new status quo is not yet clear. To argue that operational success in Iraq is now being "consolidated" is a somewhat rosy assessment.

None of his predecessors back to James V. Forrestal, appointed by President Truman, can claim anything approaching such a record.

Balls. To paraphrase the late, great Bill Hicks, that's a judgement call and I'm making it and it also happens to be true, which lends it a degree of added weight.

I want to look at two of Rumsfeld's predecessors. First off I'll deal with Forrestal, seeing as the Washington Times brought him up. Second of all I'd like to look at James Schlesinger.

Forrestal held office through a string of international crises that made Afghanistan and Iraq look like ripples in an otherwise calm ocean. China was "lost" to the Communists, the Soviets munched their way through most of Eastern Europe and the first Arab-Israeli War took place. Forrestal's tenure saw him involved in the organisation of the Berlin Airlift, the formation of NATO and the implementation of Executive Order 9981 enforcing desegregation of the armed forces. Forrestal was in his way every bit as "transformatory" as Rumsfeld and took a key role in reorganising Americas armed forces after the Second World War and in attempting to boost the role of the National Security Council. He was also the leading champion of America's naval carrier forces and their organisation into carrier battle groups. Many of the aspects of American fighting power that proved most successful in the Korean War (which took place after he had left office and committed suicide) were the result of his advocacy. He had to deal with far greater upheavals than Rumsfeld, over which he had little control, and I'll take his record over the current incumbent any day of the week.

I mention James Schlesinger because there are, it seems to me, provocative similarities between his tenure and that of Rumsfeld. Schlesinger is a hard ass. Tact is not his strong point. He also took a "transformatory" line, seeking to rebuild the armed forces of the United States after Vietnam and to modernise doctrine and force structure. He was hawkish, arguing for an assertive line to be taken against America's enemies and the importance of credibility for both deterrence and coercion. Schlesinger also attempted to reform NATO and cajole America's European allies into getting their act together - with more success than Rumsfeld has ever demonstrated. Again, a string of international crises took place during his time in office, including the 1973 Yom Kippur War, the final steps in disengagement from Vietnam and various high profile crises over Cyprus. Rumsfeld's defenders often couch their defence in terms of Rumsfeld's ability to cut through the Beltway inertia and his transformatory vision, but this defence rests on Rumsfeld being uniquely capable in this regard. Schlesinger's record demonstrates that this is not so. At this point it is worth dwelling upon one of the key pieces of Rumsfeld's own homespun wisdom - there isn't a person around who isn't expendable and can't be replaced.

I will come back to the importance of the Schlesinger parralel later on.

"Strategery" versus "Lock Box"

Owens also focuses on transformation and I think what he has to say on the matter is worth reproducing in full Although now I look at it, it's huge. So here are the edited highlights:

There are those in the Pentagon who subscribe to a dangerous
understanding of transformation: that future U.S. military power will be based less on ground forces and more on precision strikes delivered by air or space assets, perhaps coordinated and directed by a handful of special-operations forces (SOF) soldiers. This assumption smacks of a pair of heresies that periodically afflict U.S. defense planners.

The first is "strategic monism," the belief that the U.S. should invest
in a single, strategically decisive capability. The "air power can do it all"
argument is a form of strategic monism. This version of strategic monism
maintains that air power (and, increasingly, space power) is not only the
necessary but also the sufficient cause of strategic success in conflict. In
other words, air and space power are capable of achieving decisive victory
independently of other arms.

The second heresy might be called "technophilia." The technophiles
contend that emerging technologies, especially information technologies, have so completely changed the nature of warfare that many of the old verities no longer hold true. The technophiles argue that the U.S. must do what is necessary to ensure its dominance in military technology even if it means accepting a substantially reduced force structure.

One does not have to denigrate the importance of air power or technology
to believe that the exclusive reliance on air power or technology at the expense of a robust, balanced force structure is to invite strategic failure at some time in the future. This is not the sterile "airpower uber alles" vs. "boots on the ground" argument. The fact is that air and ground forces are like the blades of a pair of scissors — both blades are necessary if the scissors are to cut.

The fundamental flaw charactering both the strategic monist and the
technophile is the certainty that one can predict the future. But, the future
isn't knowable. Those who predicted that the highly touted campaign of "shock and awe" would lead to a rapid Coalition victory were wrong. Baghdad fell quickly and Saddam was deposed, but an adaptable enemy found an "asymmetric" response to U.S. military power. Reports of the death of land power were premature, to say the least. As Loren Thomson of the Lexington Institute observed, "any concept of transformation that proposes sweeping programmatic changes based on a presumed understanding of future challenges is likely to go wrong. There are simply too many possible threats, and the very act of preparing for some reduces the likelihood that those are the ones we will face."

There is little here with which I would want to disagree. In fact, it's an excellent summary of the issues regarding defence transformation. However, once he gets onto the Iraq War - or more accurately, why he thinks Rumsfeld's opponents' criticism is unfounded, I feel he is on less steady ground.

[But] there is little evidence that his critics foresaw the kind of
guerrilla war that has raged for the last few months

I'm sorry, this simply isn't true. Both military professionals (eg. Anthony Zinni) and Phase IV experts (eg. Larry Diamond, James Dobbins) were flagging up the pitfalls before the first tanks crossed the border. Much - though not all - of what has gone wrong (and much of this is follow-on from mistakes made early in the occupation) was predicted beforehand by people who were ignored either because they had made themselves politically out of favour with the administration (Zinni - how quickly his star fell when he was seen to break ranks) or because they were affiliated with the "wrong" departments (Dobbins, Diamond) and were therefore assumed to simply be part of a nest of Beltway fifth columnists working to undermine the vital work of more far sighted and gutsy people who don't hate America. Like the AEI. Plans and projections for the post-war phase drawn up by CENTCOM and the State Department was either not dug out of mothballs or were ignored on the basis that they were tainted by exposure to people working for the previous administration.

Owens claims that if other people were in charge all that would have happened is that different mistakes would have been made. He also accuses critics of ignoring the role of friction and the fog of war. Both these things are valid - up to a point.

Lupe Valez

Strategy is difficult. Very difficult. It's difficult for an alarming array of reasons. First and foremost, one does not prepare strategy to deal with an inanimate object. Strategy is formulated to deal with a living, thinking opponent. Merely misreading the opponent's intentions can be fatal or horribly prejudicial to strategic effectiveness. Even if one is able to accurately judge the context in which ones opponent is operating and to formulate what appears to be a reasonable ends/means/ways calibration, one still has to face up to the fact that the opponent will be making similar assessments about you and reacting accordingly. The situation is in a constant state of flux, with each roll of the dice having the potential to throw things out of kilter. The opponent is also capable of learning, so a strategy that works today may well not work tomorrow. Add to this the notion of "friction" in the sphere of actually attempting to translate strategy into action and you've got the potential to get very, very dead embarassingly quickly. As Colin Gray has pointed out, strategic genius is the exception, not the rule and, happily, one need not be a strategic genius in order to succeed. The strategist needs only to be good enough on the day - ie. better than the opponent. Judgements must be relative rather than absolute. In two world wars, the quality of British (and later Anglo-American. And Anglo-French for that matter) strategy ranged from Just About Adequate to Quite Good. Happily, the quality of German strategy ranged from Piss Poor to Completely Tits Up (in operational and tactical terms the qualitative judgements can be more or less reversed, relatively speaking) and on that basis Just About Adequate was good enough to bring ultimate (though costly) victory in each conflict. But to take Owens' (and others) arguments to their logical conclusion, nobody should ever be held accountable for anything in the defence field. What are you doing bitching about Bob MacNamara, Les Aspin and William Cohen? They did their best based on the information they had (well, not in the case of Big Bob, but I'd argue that Rumsfeld doesn't deserve a pass on this either) and besides even if their replacements got the things they got wrong right, they'd just get a whole slew of other stuff wrong instead. I don't find myself fired up with enthusiasm by this line of argument. Friction is a reality. Owens is quite right to recognise this. Armchair generalship is often unattractive - I'm quite sure I don't have half the answers I think I do and there are plenty of others in a similar situation. However, it is getting to the stage where it is simply becoming a catch-all get-out clause for whichever members of the policymaking community we have a partisan attachment to. Unexpected fog, communications lines going down, car crashes killing key officers, suddenly getting the shits, making the wrong call on what the enemy is going to do based on the available information, that's friction. Receiving and ignoring reports and photographs of SS armoured concentrations before Operation Market Garden, organising the Dieppe raid while attempting to circumscribe the correct lines of command and accountability, pushing towards the border with China while everyone around you but your own closed personal circle is telling you that no good can come of it, that's not friction, that's culpable negligence. And if you can't be held accountable for that sort of thing then it seems to me that everyone might as well just pack up their bags right now and go home.

Grains of sand in a sock

In truth, any case against Donald Rumsfeld cannot - should not, need not - rest upon any one event or decision. Instead we are looking at an accumulation of factors that have built up over the past three years. I freely concede that Rumsfeld's shine quickly wore off for me. As a pro-American Brit I genuinely don't believe that most Americans appreciate - or will ever really appreciate - just how damaging Donald Rumsfeld's diplomatic showboating was in the run up to the Iraq War. And the people who suffered most were the people who were doing their best to shore up support for the USA and to hold back growing anti-Americanism. For every step forward you could be sure that Rumsfeld would open his mouth on the international stage and it would be two steps back. And maybe some - many - of his opponents deserved the bad mouthing. But the plain fact of the matter is that is showcased a near complete absence of prudence. What may have seemed in Middle America to be refreshingly straight shooting, plain talking (though I don't buy this - there has been more than one instance where I have found the Defence Secretary's words to be weaselly and suggestive of buck passing) folksiness was utterly corrosive where it really mattered - elsewhere. The people most badly damaged by it were not the French or the Germans or the Russians or Saddam Hussein but the governments who were trying to simultaneously back up the US and convince their own uncertain populations at the same time. Mr Rumsfeld did them no favours, no favours at all.

On top of this we have the failure to prepare for the Phase IV period of the Iraq War. And as I've already stated I don't believe that we are looking at merely friction or careful planning being overtaken by events. The planning was either sloppy or nonexistant and based on faulty groupthink assumptions and more devastatingly it need not have been. Can the entirety of this be placed on Mr Rumsfeld's shoulders? No it cannot. As Michael has pointed out, there were people around whose jobs are to speak truth to power and they fell down on the job. But the buck must stop with him. As the status quo stands, the buck, it seems, stops with nobody.

Then there's Abu Ghraib. Again, can the blame only be placed on Mr Rumsfeld's shoulders? No it cannot. However, it seems increasingly obvious that the assertion that abuses were merely the result of a few bad apples simply cannot stand. The notion that Rumsfeld should not resign purely for Abu Ghraib (and any other prisoner abuse issues that appear set to rise up) ignores the fact that in reality Abu Ghraib was simply the latest in a string of failures that must ultimately go to the Defence Secretary's door.

Finally, Owens argues that whatever mistakes have been made in Iraq, Rumsfeld's department is undergoing serious lessons learned and has been open minded and prepared to adapt and evolve with the course of events. I can hardly disprove this but I must say that I am not convinced. I don't doubt that American troops on the ground are adapting to the best of their ability. The political leaders at the Pentagon? I see no real reason to believe so. I'm still not quite sure that the political leadership really recognises the nature of the problems being faced.Without the highest echelons being receptive to adaptation it is difficult for even the most intelligent and reform minded junior officers to make a difference, as has been demonstrated by John Nagl in his excellent book.

So where does this leave us? Well actually it brings me full circle, back to James Schlesinger. I've argued that when it comes to the better qualities, Schlesinger can match Rumsfeld. I also beleive that when it comes to some of the worse qualities, Schlesinger comes out on top. His ability to work with allies, whether by being diplomatic or by acting like a human crowbar. was undoubtedly superior. His sense of accountability is also almost certainly more highly developed. When Schlesinger, who led the committee examining the Abu Ghraib abuses, delivered the report and stated that in the committee's view Rumsfeld should not be obliged to resign, one commentator - I think it may have been Steve Clemons of the New America Foundation - stated that the question journalists should have asked Schlesinger was, "If the current situation in Iraq and the abuses at Abu Ghraib has taken place on your watch, would YOU have felt morally obliged to resign?" because Schlesinger's answer would almost certainly have been yes.

So there you have it. Donald Rumsfeld - a second rate James Schlesinger.


Blogger J. said...

Great article. I appreciate all the links and information, really helps solidify in my own mind the rebuttal required against the excessess of cheerleaders of Rumsfeld. I agree that Rumsfeld brought in some good ideas and the services really did need to be shaken out of their centric focus, but all that will be lost with his abrasiveness and lack of success in Iraq.

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