Commentary Magazine


Rumsfeld’s Revisionism

Reading former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld’s op-ed in the New York Times the other day reminded me of John Kennedy’s aphorism that success has a thousand fathers and defeat is an orphan. In this case, Rumsfeld is attempting to claim paternity for the so-called surge and the success we’ve witnessed in Iraq during the last 22 months. The problem is that the reality is at odds with what he is now claiming.

It is not that some of the specific claims Secretary Rumsfeld makes in his op-ed aren’t accurate. He is right, for example, about the progress we were making against al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) in late 2006. It’s true as well that Secretary Rumsfeld, late in the day, did support the surge.

The real fault with the piece, in my judgment, is that what Rumsfeld writes is selective and misleading. By that I mean that the causal reader would come away from his op-ed believing that Rumsfeld handed over to General David Petraeus, Ambassador Ryan Crocker, and Secretary Robert Gates a nation, Iraq, in which all the pieces had been put in place and that we were on the verge of a successful tipping point.

In fact, thanks in large measure to the policies pursued by Rumsfeld, Iraq was, in the latter half of 2006, in a death spiral. Violence, chaos, and a low-grade civil war were engulfing it. The insurgency and Shia militias were gaining strength. Sectarian divisions were deepening. Millions of Iraqis had fled the country. The economy was in shambles. In the words of the Iraq Study Group Report, “[t]he situation in Iraq is grave and deteriorating.” Reports are that General Casey himself privately acknowledged that Baghdad was “sliding toward chaos.” Many people believed Iraq was so wrecked it was beyond recovery.

Beyond that, Rumsfeld’s approach–which, it should be pointed out, was shared by key generals like the Ricardo Sanchez, George Casey, and John Abizaid–was the antithesis of the philosophy that animated the surge. They believed in the “light footprint” approach, a strategy that was premised on the conviction that American forces were an irritant that was fueling the insurgency. A key goal for Rumsfeld, therefore, was to expedite the withdrawal of American troops rather than using them to increase security and order. A favorite metaphor for Rumsfeld was referring to the Iraqis, in their quest to achieve self-government, as children learning to ride a bike; our job was to take the training wheels off and let them learn to ride by themselves.

The problem is that the Iraqis were simply not ready to take the lead. To stay true to the metaphor, we kept taking the training wheels off too early, and the bike kept crashing. Every time the American military made progress in Iraq, it was washed away; we would take control of an area and hand it over to the Iraqis, and they in turn could not defend the gains that had been made.

In retrospect, a number of things are clear. One is that the Pentagon’s Phase IV (post-war) planning was badly mismanaged. There was a huge gap between ends (a secure, stable, well-functioning Iraq) and means (the mission and number of troops necessary to secure order). Another is that while the appeal of the “light footprint” approach is understandable – a foreign occupation of a nation is never an ideal situation – the costs of this strategy far outweighed the benefits. We didn’t adjust to the enemy we faced and the circumstances we found ourselves in. A third is that Secretary Rumsfeld never accepted the fact that in Iraq we were committed, whether we liked it or not, to a massive nation-building effort. A fourth is that Rumsfeld’s commitment to “speed and agility and precision” rather than “mass” was the opposite of what was needed (Rumsfeld spoke about what he viewed as the key lessons of the war in a December 5, 2005 speech to the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies).

On the matter of the surge itself, Rumsfeld claims

there had been earlier surges without the same effect as the 2007 surge. In 2005, troop levels in Iraq were increased to numbers nearly equal to the 2007 surge — twice. But the effects were not as durable because the large segments of the Sunni population were still providing sanctuary to insurgents, and Iraq’s security forces were not sufficiently capable or large enough.

But what made the 2007 surge different than everything before it was not the increase in the number of troops but, much more importantly, a new mission that was based on classical counterinsurgency doctrine, meaning that it was focused on living with, securing, and winning the confidence of the Iraqi people. The strategy of clearing areas alone gave way to clearing, holding, and building them. The days of “commuting” to the war from forward operating bases were ended by General Petraeus; under his command, American troops became part of the neighborhood, eating, sleeping, and staying in close contact with the local population. This increasingly won them over to our side, which led to a massive increase in tips against AQI and reducing the need for Iraqis to turn to militias for safety.

There is much more to General Petraeus’s “Anaconda Strategy”; suffice it to say that it is the type of approach that Donald Rumsfeld opposed during almost his entire tenure (though to repeat, in late 2006 he did support the President’s surge decision). At any point along the way, Rumsfeld could have rethought his original approach and championed the core concepts of the surge. But he never really did.

The mistakes in Iraq pre-2007 were massive, and many people beyond Donald Rumsfeld share the responsibility for them. It was an Administration-wide failure. But Rumsfeld, as Secretary of Defense, was the architect of our military strategy in Iraq during his years in office. And so, while he certainly shouldn’t be made a scapegoat for everything that went wrong, he should not be allowed to revise history.

The Iraq war was nearly lost–and the fact that it’s now being won is because enormously skilled people, in the face of enormous odds, eventually undid much of what Rumsfeld put in place. Normally I wouldn’t spend any time at all recapitulating the Rumsfeld record, which will be obvious enough soon enough, when all the documents are eventually made public. At that point, we’ll see who stood where, when; and who in the Administration was pressing for fundamental changes in the war and who was not. But when Rumsfeld takes to the op-ed pages of the New York Times to (not so subtly) claim credit for all the things that have gone right in Iraq since his resignation was accepted by the President, it is time to push back, for the sake of truth and history.

I would only add that I’m grateful that the situation in Iraq is such that we now have people eagerly wanting to be associated with the policies of the last two years. There are a handful of individuals–including Jack Keane, Raymond Odierno, David Petraeus, Ryan Crocker, Fred Kagan, Stephen Hadley, and the President– who deserve credit for the turnabout. Donald Henry Rumsfeld is not one of them.

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