Ed Driscoll

McNamara And Rumsfeld: Compare And Contrast

Over at Power Line, Paul Mirengoff writes:

The death of Robert McNamara serves as George Will’s spring board to reflect on contemporary neo-conservativism. Will reminds us that neo-conservatism began, in significant part, as a reaction to the immodest stance of McNamara and others that social science can tell us with precision how we should proceed, He finds, however, that today’s neo-conservatism has much in common with McNamara’s stance. Will writes:

The world McNamara has departed could soon be convulsed by attempts to modify Iran’s behavior. Since a variety of incentives have been unavailing, more muscular measures — perhaps “surgical strikes,” a phrase redolent of the McNamara mentality — are contemplated.Some persons fault the president for not having more ambitious plans to prompt and guide Iranians toward regime change. That outcome is sometimes advocated, and its consequences confidently anticipated, by neoconservatives whose certitude about feasibility resembles that which, decades ago, neoconservatism was born to counter.

But strikes against Iran’s nuclear facilities would not be attempts at behavior modification; they would be efforts to eliminate a capability that permits ceratin behavior. And one can advocate ambitious plans to promote regime change without having great certitude about the consequences. Will could just as easily accuse those with less ambitious plans, or none at all, of having great certitude that a nuclear Iran will behave rationally, like the Soviet Union did. Robert McNamara was a big believer in rationality.

Will’s piece is thought-provoking, in any event, and it provoked me to think compare McNamara and Donald Rumsfeld who, though not a neo-conservative, is sometimes considered a “fellow traveler.” The similarities seem obvious: both achieved extraordinary things at an early age (though Rumsfeld was far more seasoned than McNamara by the time he became Secretary of Defense); both were sticklers for data and precision; both came to the Pentagon brimming with ideas for reform and modernization of the military; both met resistance from the military; both had their tenure defined not by the reforms they wanted to implement but by an unanticipated war against rag-tag opposition that went badly; both left the Pentagon following lack of military success; both wars went better after they departed.

There are differences too. Under McNamara, U.S. troop levels in Vietnam kept increasing. By contrast, Rumsfeld wanted a small U.S. “footprint” in Iraq, and he apparently rejected calls for more troops.

It’s also tough to picture to Rumsfeld calling for this.