The War Against Rumsfeld

By David B. Rivkin Jr. and Rich Lowry
David Rivkin is a Washington attorney who served in various legal and policy positions in the administrations of Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush. Rich Lowry is the editor of National Review.

Los Angeles Times

January 7, 2005

Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld has managed both to be targeted by the Bush administration's usual Democratic critics and to lose the support of some Republican senators and conservative pundits. They contend that the Iraq war has been prosecuted incompetently, with Rumsfeld bearing the major responsibility.

The attacks, of course, depend upon a fiction — that a perfectly run, low-casualty war is always possible, as long as we have proper military leadership. If only that were so. Instead, waging war is unavoidably difficult, unpredictable and deadly. To think otherwise is certain to weaken public support for the use of force and therefore only undermines our ability to apply it when necessary.

The criticisms of Rumsfeld — repeated so often that they have congealed almost into conventional wisdom — feed the fiction. They are wrong, ahistorical and militarily ignorant.

Start with the argument that we went into Iraq with a military force too small for the job. Put aside that senior U.S. military commanders on the ground believed our force levels to be sufficient. As is the case in almost all wars, our ability to introduce more troops into the region was constrained by geographical, logistical and foreign policy considerations. Ankara's position on whether U.S. troops could be deployed from Turkey remained in flux until the last minute (the Turks ultimately said no), and staging additional troops out of Kuwait would have presented logistical problems. Meanwhile, with many of our regional allies remembering the inconclusive end of the 1991 Persian Gulf War, the more we delayed combat, the more we risked losing support, which would have derailed the enterprise.

There was an additional reason to go to war using the forces that had been assembled in the region — we were able to achieve operational surprise against Saddam Hussein, who thought the United States, once deprived of the use of Turkey, would have to wait to move additional forces to the Gulf. This created a strategic advantage that led to the low combat casualty rates and greatly limited collateral damage during the initial invasion. Had U.S. commanders delayed the assault until a larger force could have been assembled, the war might have been launched under substantially more difficult and deadly circumstances.

The critics also blame Rumsfeld for failing to foresee a ferocious insurgency. But this possibility wasn't predicted by U.S. intelligence, so how is Rumsfeld — who, according to Bob Woodward's reporting, did warn President Bush about many of the risks of the war — uniquely responsible for this failure of clairvoyance?

Had the initial invasion been more difficult and more protracted (perhaps as a result of forfeiting surprise to bring additional forces into the region), coalition fighters might have destroyed the bulk of the Iraqi army and Republican Guards. That could have dimmed the prospects for the insurgency, but we would have had to cope with higher coalition combat casualties, and perhaps the refugee flows and humanitarian disasters that opponents of the war predicted before the invasion.

In general, Rumsfeld's critics — attached to the cliche about more "boots on the ground" — do not seem to realize that counterinsurgencies aren't won by the size of the counterforce but by intelligence on the ground and a political process that marginalizes the insurgents.

The criticism that Rumsfeld sent troops to war without equipping them appropriately is also bogus. Humvees, the focus of much of this debate, weren't designed as front-line combat vehicles. They were built for light transport and became inadequate in Iraq only when insurgents began to rely heavily on roadside bombs. The Pentagon adjusted with speed — all that can be asked given the unpredictable nature of warfare.

Finally, there's the silliest anti-Rumsfeld argument — that he is so obsessed with transforming the U.S. military into a futuristic force that he is skimping on today's war-fighting needs. This is rich coming from the same critics who hate it that the secretary famously said we had to fight the war in Iraq with the force we had at the time, not the force we might want. Which is it? Is he too complacent about today's force or too determined to change it?

Of course, the Bush administration has made mistakes in Iraq (for example, not stopping crime after the fall of Baghdad, not taking Fallouja last April). But almost all these decisions were excruciatingly difficult, had costs and benefits and were clearly revealed as mistakes only in retrospect.

To claim that war can be easy or simple creates a dangerous illusion in a democracy that rouses itself to fight only with the utmost difficulty and is facing a protracted struggle against a ruthless enemy.

This may not trouble Rumsfeld's left-leaning critics, who have no use for the enterprise of war in general and preemptive war in particular. His conservative critics should know better.