What Rumsfeld Got Right

Former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld has released an 800-page memoir titled Known and Unknown. As usual, punditry commented on it prior to reading it; in keeping with that tradition, I feel obliged to do the same. Rumsfeld’s memoir should reignite several debates of the past decade. The debate most worthy of revisiting is not whether the war in Iraq was justified, but rather how, in retrospect, the United States should have executed the war.

Here is the caricature: Rumsfeld wanted a rapid and “light” war. This would have vindicated his view that the U.S. military ought to transform into a faster, leaner, quicker, more flexible, agile, and technological force able to do more with less -- more like the Special Forces. He would walk around the Pentagon saying “speed kills.” Therefore, Rumsfeld sent enough troops to capture Baghdad in three weeks, but not enough troops to secure the rest of the theater.

We “won the war” in April 2003, but “lost the peace” by that summer. The subsequent chaos inspired an insurgency which continued for nearly four years, due to Rumsfeld’s doctrinaire arrogance. Then in 2007, after Rumsfeld’s resignation and the retirement of his generals, General Petraeus took over and implemented the “surge” strategy of 30,000 additional U.S. troops. The Petraeus-led counterinsurgency pacified the war-torn country.

That’s the caricature. Though there is some truth to this, it evades the overriding question of the war: having overthrown Saddam Hussein in April 2003, should the United States have occupied Iraq in the first place?

One of the great ironies of the war, often overlooked by contemporary historians, is the fact that the invasion’s biggest proponents in the United States -- the so-called “neocons” in the Defense Department: Wolfowitz, Feith, Perle, even Bolton at the State Department, etc. -- all opposed militarily occupying Iraq after ousting Saddam. Rumsfeld was in line with this thinking. This group saw the distinction between liberation and occupation, between supporting Iraqi democrats and the mission-creep of nation-building.

There are those who say this view of military intervention is naïve, even reckless. Colin Powell and the Pottery Barn rule come to mind: “You break it, you own it.” Senator John McCain frequently derides Rumsfeld and prides himself on championing the “more-troops” strategy long before President Bush executed it in 2007-08.

But that’s not necessarily what the neocon-types had in mind. They felt the Iraqis were better equipped to run their country than Paul Bremer and the Coalitional Provisional Authority. Sovereignty and political authority ought to have been transferred to the Iraqi National Congress (INC) the moment Saddam’s statue fell in Baghdad’s Firdos Square. Yes, that INC -- led by the infamous Ahmed Chalabi. I do not know what is in Chalabi’s heart (though I am Facebook friends with him). It doesn’t matter what’s in his heart. He’s become something of a scapegoat.