Rumsfeld's Blinkers

By DAVID BROOKS

New York Times

March 16, 2006

Some weeks nothing happens; some weeks change history. The week of March 24, 2003, was one of those pivotal weeks. U.S. troops had just begun the ground invasion of Iraq. They were charging north, but hadn't reached Baghdad. The Fedayeen had begun to launch suicide attacks and were putting up serious resistance in Nasiriya.

Everybody denigrates pundits and armchair generals, but immediately the smartest of them recognized that something unexpected was happening: the U.S. was not in the midst of a conventional war, but was in the first days of a guerrilla war.

Michael Kelly, embedded with the Third Infantry Division, wrote a column describing how Fedayeen guerrillas had taken control of towns like Najaf. Kelly predicted the war would be long and tough. David Ignatius in The Washington Post wrote that it was "time to shelve the rosy scenarios" for the war and face the fact that the U.S. was confronting a difficult battle against resistance fighters.

Gen. Tommy Franks was slighting the insurgents as a mere speed bump, but the terrorism expert Rachel Ehrenfeld estimated there were at least 30,000 insurgents "and they are dangerous." Gary Anderson, a retired Marine colonel, suggested the chief threat would not be Saddam's Republican Guard, but a drawn-out guerrilla war against the "occupation."

Some of the most prescient pieces came from the Islamic world. In Pakistan, a retired politician named Shafqat Mahmood wrote: "This is becoming a kind of war where holding territory or even cities is meaningless.... Saddam Fedayeen and all manner of Republican guards and security forces will take off their uniforms and vanish among the people. They will regroup and continue the fight. We are heading towards a guerrilla war."

All of this, and a great pile of similar commentary, was written in the first few days of the ground war.

In TV studios and on op-ed pages, the debate shifted that week. If the U.S. was confronting an insurgency, more boots on the ground would be needed. Ralph Peters, a retired officer, wrote stinging op-eds in The New York Post and elsewhere savaging Donald Rumsfeld for not understanding that you can't prevent sabotage or ethnic cleansing without a large troop presence. The Weekly Standard, which had been bashing Rumsfeld for years for shrinking the Army, echoed Peters's argument on its Web page. Retired officers poured into TV studios, calling for more troops.

Not everybody looks prescient in hindsight. The brilliant historian John Keegan doubted that there would be an insurgency. But when you look at the commentary — at least during that week — you are struck by how smart a lot of it was, and how the commentariat responded sensibly to facts on the ground.

The debate inside the administration was different. We now know a lot about events inside the Pentagon in that crucial week, thanks to "Cobra II," the definitive account of the war by The Times's Michael R. Gordon and Lt. Gen. Bernard E. Trainor.

The officers on the front lines saw the same thing the smart pundits saw, and in more detail. But Rumsfeld and Franks stifled the free exchange of ideas, and shut out the National Security Council. They dismissed concerns about the insurgents and threatened to fire the one general, William Wallace, who dared to state the obvious in public. The military brass followed the war in real time on computer screens. As long as the blue icons representing U.S. troops were heading north to Baghdad, the U.S. was deemed to be winning. The technology seemed to provide real-time information, but it was completely misleading.

The week of March 24 is vital because if Rumsfeld had made adjustments to the new circumstances then, much of the subsequent horror could have been averted.

But it is also a reminder of the reality one sees again and again: Debate inside any administration is less sophisticated and realistic than the debate among experts outside. The people inside have access to a bit more information. But they are more likely to self-censor for fear of endangering their careers. Debate inside is much more likely to be warped by the egotism, insecurity, power lust and distracting busyness of people at the top.

That's true in general, and it's true in spades in Donald Rumsfeld's Pentagon. "Cobra II" makes Rumsfeld and Franks each seem like Barry Bonds: a formerly intimidating figure who now just seems pathetic. Those two were contemptuous of the armchair generals and the TV kibitzers. But at the crucial moment in their lives, they got things wrong, and the pundits often got things right.