Sunday, April 16, 2006

There has been a great stir in the media and in the blogosphere about a group of retired, prominent, senior generals who have criticized Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld's handling of the war and called for his resignation. Recently, other retired generals, equally senior and well known, have come to Rumsfeld's aid, offering public support and sometimes rebuking his critics. The Pentagon has isssued what amount to " talking points"on the Secretary's performance. Other politicians have weighed in and the President has given his Secretary a full vote of confidence.

My thoughts on the matter are basically twofold.

In terms of Rumsfeld's performance how one views the war in Iraq seems to have much to do with whether you give Rumsfeld a favorable review or believe he is a disaster. Few of Rumsfeld's blogospheric critics know or care all that much about issues like, say, defense transformation where Rumsfeld has had a huge impact ( and angered many senior officers) or will have enough integrity to give him his share of the credit where military action in Afghanistan or Iraq have gone well. That simply goes down the memory hole for them. Likewise, a knee-jerk defender of Rumsfeld skips over the Secretary's responsibility for mishandling Abu Ghraib and for the larger problem of the dysfunctional CPA itself, which should have been shelved and replaced by a proper and tough-minded military governorship after the Jay Garner debacle.

The fact is that in major wars, there are major errors. Many major errors. Tactical, operational and strategic errors are committed before the war comes to a close. And that is on the victorious side. The last Secretary of War, Henry Stimson, presided over disasters including the loss of the Philippines, Kasserine Pass and the initial reverses of the Battle of the Bulge. Lincoln's Secretary of War, Edwin Stanton, had the misfortune to go through miserable years of defeat and retreat. The great and justly acclaimed General George C. Marshall, the architect of victory in WWII, as Truman's Secretary of Defense, had to suffer much blame during the highly unpopular Korean War. The idea that the United States can wage a war on al Qaida or in Iraq or anywhere for that matter and never suffer a reverse or make mistakes is nothing short of ahistorically surreal.

My second thought is that while it is fine for former generals to criticize Rumsfeld's performance as Secretary of Defense - I would say they have an obligation to do so in regard to matters of professional competence - orchestrating a collective call for Rumsfeld's ouster is not. The United States is not Turkey, Guatemala or Pakistan. Uniformed soldiers in this country - and these generals are eligible to be recalled to duty - do not get to pick their civilian chiefs; they do not get so much as a veto. That remains the sole perogative of the President of the United States and the upper house of the legislative branch and no other.

This media campaign sets an incredibly bad precedent for the overt politicization of the American officer corps, one that is now being fed by the generals defending Rumsfeld and both sides need to stop immediately. If a retired general has an itch for politics, then he needs to run for office or particpate openly as a partisan in the democratic process and not attempt to speak as a gray eminence of the military college of cardinals. George Marshall, Omar Bradley and Dwight Eisenhower - men who knew something about separating the roles of military and civilian leaders and which of the two outranked the other - would be aghast.

Bloggers on Rumsfeld vs. The Generals:

QandO, Don Surber, Ranting Profs, Brad Plumer, Armchair Generalist, Caerdroia,

Dan Drezner, Intel Dump, Mountain Runner, Whirledview-PLS,

Whirledview-CKR, Penraker, Judith Klinghoffer , The Adventures of Chester

(Various hat tips to: Memeorandum )
Unfortunately, the Iraq war will define much of what this administration has done.

When Rumsfeld started out, I felt that his "transformation" was very much needed in a Cold War, pork-infested department. Had 9/11 not happened, a streamlined defense department might have been his legacy.

However, when he actually began to cut back on expensive equipment programs, he ran into the usual porkbarreled opposition and lost. Part of the reason for that may have been that he failed to rally his own troops, civilian and military, within the department. It was clear that that would be one enormous battle.

I even enjoyed some of his early press conferences and his jousting with the press's ill-informed questioning.

It's possible, though, that the capabilities that served him to take on the press were the same that kept him from rallying the troops against pork and led to this "revolt of the generals." Ultimately sure of himself and not needing any advice from anyone. That's become clearer in his recent spat with Condoleezza Rice.

The news reports this morning are of more civilians calling for Rumsfeld's replacement. Not a good sign for Rummy and his boss.

Excellent post of your own and a great roundup of other bloggers's remarks!

On Rumsfeld, I give him full credit for his great leadership in Afghanistan, but I think he got chewed up and spat out by the military-industrial complex. The new QDR is a defeat for him and his vision of transformation, no matter how hard people try to spin it. Look at what the Navy is up to with its unrealistic, unsustainable ship-building plan, in literal full defiance of what Rumsfeld has tried honorably to accomplish.

His mistakes on Iraq are well-documented, and I will point (as I did in my blog post on this) out that the most fierce yet reasonable criticism of him has come from conservative quarters, especially in the form of that Elliot Cohen essay in the WAPO last year when his son was shipping out to Iraq.

(These generals know their target audience well and are tailor-making their criticisms to conservatives and the "hawks" in the moderate camp)

In regards to major errors, while it is very true that major mistakes and errors have happened often in the past, we are now in an age where the slightest mistake is magnified x 10 by the global media and sophisticated political partisan machines. Thus, the margain for acceptable error is low. The populace is notoriously fickle, and the loss of popular support for the war is becoming an ever more distinct possibility, a tragedy if it ever occurs.

(Rumsfeld doesn't seem to realize that, but Zinni and others do, all the more good for them to point it out in public)

I truly do hope and pray Rumsfeld can somehow transcend this disaster he's partly responsible for and achieve greatness if he is to remain for the remainder of this presidency, but I seriously doubt it.

Abu Gharib was really the point of no return for him though. In the military (as has been reinforced upon me in currently reading "Misfortunes of War"), failures in training, discipline and the breakdown of the chain of command like Abu Gharib usually result in the commander taking the fall for it. For Rumsfeld, whose unclear policices on torture and detainee rights certainly helped add to the air of confusion, (as well as his military subordinates in charge in Iraq) not to be fired or resign after that was and still is unbelievable. Beyond the moral issues at hand, the troops needed clear leadership and guidance on that issue. They recieved neither, to the point where Rumsfeld actually was arguing with Gen. Peter Pace late last year about the responsibilities of US forces to report/and/or stop torture or abuse. That is totally unacceptable.
Hi CKR & Eddie,

Re: transformation, Rumsfeld has accomplishments here but at the core sustaining the pork barrel are " jobs back home" for congressmen. Hence the ludicrous building of seawolf submarines in preference to far higher priorities. At this point Rumsfeld, who is a master of vertical bureaucratic politics, needed to engage laterally a build a coalition of support for defense realism in Congress. Perhaps the war made that kind of investment of SecDef time impossible ( it would be a major investment) but I agree, the service chiefs won the last QDR/budget process much to the detriment of national security.

Alarmingly, if Rumsfeld, with his overbearing style and relentless drive, could not prevail here, who can ?

I too criticized Rumsfeld heavily for Abu Ghraib. On balance though I think keeping him now is preferable to putting in a caretaker figurehead in the midst of a war. Barring finding somebody of equal bility who can also hit the ground running at the Pentagon and not need a year or more to learn the job, the costs of dropping Rumsfeld isn't worth the short-term political benefits that a change at the top would yield.
Mark, you answered your own question

Alarmingly, if Rumsfeld, with his overbearing style and relentless drive, could not prevail here, who can ?

in the previous paragraph.

Someone who can build a coalition across the DoD and congress that will stand up to the military-industrial complex.

It won't be easy, but hey, that's what the SecDef gets the big bucks for!

Unfortunately, I don't see anybody who fits that description who isn't a product of the status quo.
On further consideration, I have to agree that a caretaker DOD sec. would make the situation even worse, especially because there would be a real possibility that enemies of transformation and reform could use the absence of strong leadership (or Rumsfeld's still potent ire) to roll back some of the reforms. What about Sam Nunn though?
Good question, Eddie. I'm not up to speed on what Nunn has been doing lately but politically speaking, he would seem to be an attractive choice.
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