James S. Robbins
Donald Rumsfeld’s passing Tuesday has unleashed a blizzard of over-the-top criticism of the controversial former secretary of State. The Atlantic dubbed him “the worst secretary of defense in American history.” The Nation’s obituary was headlined, “War Criminal Found Dead at 88.” The Twittersphere was even less complimentary.
Naturally, Rumsfeld is despised by progressives, and always has been. But the intensity of the emotions surrounding his demise may make people forget that, at one time, he was an almost universally respected and admired leader who simply stayed too long.
Rumsfeld’s biography is well known; naval aviator, four-term congressman, corporate executive, and both the youngest and oldest person to serve as secretary of Defense. He was pugnacious, witty, charming in person, and decisive as an executive. Not everyone liked Rumsfeld’s manner, but as he said, “If you are not criticized, you may not be doing much.”
Rumsfeld’s second tour as secretary of Defense started out predictably enough. He sought to fight Pentagon waste and inefficiency, and promote a strategic vision termed “Defense Transformation,” making the military more networked, adaptable, expeditionary, and lethal.
Man of the moment
But it seemed like the old ways of doing things would outlast Rumsfeld. His private sector experience as a corporate downsizer was less relevant in the public sector with employees he could not fire, assets he could not sell, and a dysfunctional board of directors (Congress). By the end of summer 2001, some had already declared his effort a failure, and there was a rumored betting pool at the Pentagon on the date he would resign.
The New York Times said Rumsfeld was going to declare “war on bureaucracy in the Pentagon.” That article ran in the morning edition of Sept. 11, 2001.
The terrorist attacks that day were Rumsfeld’s moment. As early as the 1985 hijacking of the cruise ship Achille Lauro and murder of Leon Klinghoffer, Rumsfeld had recommended that the United States take the war on terrorism to the enemy’s home ground. Americans were rallying around the national effort led by President George W. Bush to annihilate the al-Qaida terror network and its allies. The Sept. 11 attacks gave Rumsfeld the opportunity to put his transformational concepts to the test.
The opening months of the campaign in Afghanistan were magnificent. American forces, alongside coalition partners and especially indigenous Afghan resistance fighters, quickly routed the Taliban forces, drove them from power, and severely crippled al-Qaida. The subsequent stability-building efforts worked so well that by 2005 Rep. Nancy Pelosi stated that “the war in Afghanistan is over.”
Rapid success in Afghanistan made the 70-year-old Rumsfeld a national institution. President Bush dubbed him “Rumstud.” Optometrists sold out of his rimless frames. Viewers tuned into his press briefings and delighted in his pithy quotes, many of which were compiled into the must-read “Rumsfeld’s Rules.” People magazine declared him a sex symbol. A Harris poll in November 2001 put his approval rating at 78%. Compare to today – how many people even know who the secretary of Defense is?
“I don’t do quagmires”
But fame gives and fame takes away. Since Sept. 11, 2001, Rumsfeld had discussed attacking Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq. That occasion came in March 2003. The U.S. military performed brilliantly in the opening phases of Operation Iraqi Freedom and within weeks coalition forces were in Baghdad.
On May 1, President Bush declared the end of major combat operations. If Rumsfeld had retired that day, he would have left on top of the world, capping a storied career in public service with the successful prosecution of two wars.
But the story continued. Rumsfeld famously said, “I don’t do quagmires,” but quagmires did him.
The crisis that developed in Iraq was not, as some critics allege, caused by Rumsfeld’s “light footprint” of fighting forces. More troops would simply have been more targets. No, the problem was bad policy.
Retired Army Lieutenant General Jay Garner had begun to formulate sensible transition planning through the Office for Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance. Garner wanted to transfer power to the Iraqi people as quickly as possible and get out. But Garner was removed in May 2003 and his plans were shelved. Ambassador L. Paul Bremer took over as head of the Coalition Provisional Authority, and the early date for transferring sovereignty was pushed back. The American liberators had become occupiers. An Iraqi officer later told me that this breach of trust with the Iraqi people marked the true start of the insurgency.
The insurgency was not just caused by the symbolism of the U.S. behaving in ways that echoed previous colonial powers. A series of stunningly ill-advised decisions followed.
In the name of “de-Ba’athification,” all the experts from Saddam’s regime who knew how the country worked were fired. This intensified the chaos in Iraq. Then, the Iraqi army was disbanded, and the officer corps purged, even to the extent of seizing their pensions. Respected tribal leaders were bluntly informed that their days of power were over.
These foolish moves created a core of angry Iraqis with military expertise, extensive in-country influence networks, a need for income and deep hatred of the United States. This aligned their interests with al-Qaida and Iran, and the rest followed.
Decline and fall
How much easier it would have been to just keep all these people on the payroll, to buy their cooperation, rather than fuel their desire for revenge. And how much better to have left it to the Iraqis to sort out their new government, rather than micro-managing a result that still had not brought stability when the Coalition Provisional Authority disbanded a year later. Whether or not Rumsfeld had anything to do with those terrible decisions, he supported them, and he suffered the results.
The growing intensity of the subsequent warfare in Iraq tracks Rumsfeld’s popular decline and fall. The same Harris poll that gave the secretary rock-star approval ratings in 2001 had him at 47% two years later, and a dismal 34% in November 2005 as casualties mounted in Iraq. By then, Rumsfeld’s fiercest critics were calling him a “war criminal,” but his only “crime” was failure to adapt.
To paraphrase Rumsfeld, you go to war with the policymakers you have, not the policymakers you might want. And while the innovative concepts that later became known as the “surge” strategy were being discussed by counterinsurgency experts since the beginning of the Iraq War, they did not solidify into successful policy until Rumsfeld and his top lieutenants had left the building.
Since then, the secretary’s legacy has been dominated by stridently critical assessments of the conduct of the Iraq War, despite his previous achievements. It will take years before more objective appraisals to begin Rumsfeld’s transformation.
James S. Robbins, a member of USA TODAY’s Board of Contributors and author of “This Time We Win: Revisiting the Tet Offensive,” has taught at the National Defense University and the Marine Corps University and served as a special assistant in the office of the secretary of Defense in the George W. Bush administration. He is a senior fellow in National Security Affairs at the American Foreign Policy Council. Follow him on Twitter: @James_Robbins