Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Rumsfeld Revisited

There's an excellent debate on civil-military relations in the Bush administration in the current issue of Foreign Affairs.

The exchange covers Michael Desch's earlier article on the administration, "
Bush and the Generals," which argued that normal tensions between civilian policymakers and the military's general staff were exacerbated by the adminstration ideological campaign to transform the military and privilege civilian battle judgements over that of the uniformed personnel.

A noteworthy segment in the current exchange is Mackubin Thomas Owen's assessment of former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld's tenure. Owen's generally optimistic on the efficacy of civilian leadership; he looks at a number of historical examples, bringing his case up to the current administration:

In the case of Rumsfeld, it is clear that he was guilty of errors of judgment regarding the conduct of the Iraq war. However, as case after case makes clear, Rumsfeld's critics were no more prescient than he. Rumsfeld failed to foresee the insurgency and the shift from conventional to guerrilla war, but so did his critics in the uniformed services. The army's official historian of the campaign has placed the blame for this failure squarely on the army. "Reluctance in even defining the situation," the historian writes, "is perhaps the most telling indicator of a collective cognitive dissonance on the part of the U.S. Army to recognize a war of rebellion, a people's war, even when they were fighting it."

Critics also charge Rumsfeld's Pentagon with shortchanging the troops in Iraq -- by, for example, failing to provide them with armored Humvees. But a review of army budget submissions even after the war had turned into an insurgency reveals that the service's priority was to acquire big-ticket items. It was only after the danger of improvised explosive devices became obvious that the army began to push for supplemental spending to "up-armor" the utility vehicles.

And although it is true that Rumsfeld downplayed postconflict stabilization operations, it is also true that he was merely ratifying the preferences of the uniformed military, which has a cultural aversion to such operations. The real villain in this case is the Weinberger-Powell Doctrine -- a set of principles long internalized by the U.S. military emphasizing the requirement for an "exit strategy." When generals are thinking about an exit strategy, they are not thinking about "war termination" -- how to convert military success into political success.

In retrospect, it is easy to criticize Rumsfeld for pushing General Tommy Franks, the combatant commander, to develop a plan for a force smaller than the one called for in earlier plans, as well as for his interference with the time-phased force and deployment list (TPFDL), which lays out the schedule for deploying forces. But that charge focuses on the consequences of the chosen path (attacking earlier with a smaller force) while ignoring potential drawbacks of the alternative -- for example, that taking the time to build up a larger force would have meant losing the chance for surprise.

The debate over the size of the invasion force must also be understood in the context of the state of civil-military relations at the end of Clinton's presidency. Rumsfeld was correct that civilian control of the military had eroded during the Clinton years. When the army did not want to do something -- as in the Balkans in the 1990s -- it would simply overstate the force requirements: "The answer is 350,000 soldiers. What's the question?" Accordingly, Rumsfeld was inclined to interpret the army's call for a larger force as another case of foot-dragging. In retrospect, Rumsfeld's decision not to deploy the First Cavalry Division was a mistake, but at the time it was not unreasonable to argue that the TPFDL (like the "two major theater war" planning metric) had become little more than a bureaucratic tool that the services used to protect their share of the defense budget.

Uniformed officers have an obligation to stand up to civilian leaders when they think a policy is flawed. They must convey their concerns to civilian policymakers forcefully and truthfully. If they believe the door is closed to them at the Pentagon or the White House, they also have access to Congress. But the U.S. tradition of civil-military relations requires that they not engage in public debate over matters of foreign policy, including the decision to go to war. And once a policy decision is made, soldiers are obligated to carry it out to the best of their abilities, whether their advice has been heeded or not.

Read the whole thing.

For my earlier post on Desch's "Bush and the Generals, click here.

While I admire Desch's political science expertise, I'm not convinced his analysis of the Bush administration is free of hostily to the president's neoconservative foreign policy project.

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