James S. Robbins
Donald Rumsfeld’s passing on Tuesday has sparked a storm of exaggerated criticism of the controversial former secretary of state. The Atlantic nicknamed him “The worst secretary of defense in the history of the United States”. The The obituary of the nation it was titled, “War Criminal Found Dead at 88”. The Twittersphere it was even less flattering.
Of course, progressives despise Rumsfeld, and always has been. But the intensity of the emotions surrounding his passing can make people forget that, at one point, he was an almost universally respected and admired leader who simply stayed too long.
Rumsfeld’s biography is well known; naval aviator, four-term congressman, corporate executive and both the younger and older person to serve as Secretary of Defense. He was belligerent, witty, charming in person, and determined as an executive. Not everyone liked Rumsfeld’s style, but as he said, “If they don’t criticize you, you may not be doing much.”
Rumsfeld’s second tour as Secretary of Defense began unsurprisingly. He tried to fight the waste and inefficiency of the Pentagon and promote a strategic vision called “Defense transformation”, making the military more connected, adaptable, expeditionary and lethal.
Man of the moment
But it seemed like the old ways of doing things would outlast Rumsfeld. His experience in the private sector as a corporate reducer was less relevant in the public sector with employees he couldn’t fire, assets he couldn’t sell, and a dysfunctional board of directors (Congress). By the end of the summer of 2001, some had already declared his effort a failure, and it was rumored that there was a betting group in the Pentagon on the date he would resign.
The New York Times said Rumsfeld was going to testify “War on Bureaucracy at the Pentagon”. That article appeared in the morning issue of September 11, 2001.
The terrorist attacks that day were Rumsfeld’s time. Already in the 1985 cruise ship hijacking Achille Lauro and the assassination of Leon Klinghoffer, Rumsfeld had recommended that the United States take the war on terror into enemy territory. Americans were rallying around the national effort led by President George W. Bush to wipe out the terrorist network Al Qaeda and its allies. The September 11 attacks gave Rumsfeld an opportunity to put his transformative concepts to the test.
The months of opening of the campaign in Afghanistan they were magnificent. US forces, along with coalition partners and especially indigenous Afghan resistance fighters, quickly defeated the Taliban forces, drove them from power and severely crippled al Qaeda. Subsequent stability-building efforts worked so well that in 2005 Representative Nancy Pelosi stated that “The war in Afghanistan is over.”
Rapid success in Afghanistan made 70 years Rumsfeld a national institution. President Bush nicknamed him “Rumstud”. The optometrists sold out their rimless frames. Viewers tuned in to his press conferences and reveled in his concise quotes, many of which were compiled in must-read. “Rumsfeld Rules”. People magazine declared it a sex symbol. TO Harris survey in November 2001 he placed his approval rating at 78%. Compare with today: how many people know who the secretary of defense is?
“I don’t get stuck”
But fame gives and fame takes away. Since September 11, 2001, Rumsfeld had talked about attacking Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq. That time came March 2003. The US military performed brilliantly in the initial phases of Operation Iraqi Freedom Y within weeks, coalition forces were in Baghdad.
On May 1, President Bush declared the end of the main combat operations. Had Rumsfeld retired that day, he would have gone on top of the world, culminating a historic career in public service with the successful prosecution of two wars.
But the story continued. Rumsfeld famous saying, “I do not make quagmire”, but the quagmire he did.
The crisis that unfolded in Iraq was not, as some critics allege, caused by the “slight footprint” of Rumsfeld’s fighting forces. More troops would simply have been more targets. No, the problem was bad policy.
Retired Army Lieutenant General Jay Garner had begun to formulate a sensible transition planning through the Office for Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance. Garner wanted to transfer power to the Iraqi people as quickly as possible and get out. But Garner was eliminated in May 2003 and his plans were shelved. Ambassador L. Paul Bremer took office as head of the Coalition Provisional Authority, and the early date to transfer sovereignty was delayed. The American liberators had become occupiers. An Iraqi official later told me that this breach of trust with the Iraqi people marked the true beginning of the insurgency.
The insurgency was not only caused by the symbolism that the United States behaved in a way that echoed previous colonial powers. A series of astonishingly misguided decisions followed.
In the name of “debaathification, “All the experts of the Saddam regime who knew how the country worked were fired. This intensified the chaos in Iraq. Then the Iraqi army was disbanded and the officer corps purged, even to the point of seize their pensions. Respected tribal leaders were bluntly informed that their days of power were over.
These foolish moves created a core of angry Iraqis with military experience, extensive networks of influence in the country, a need for income, and a deep hatred of the United States. This aligned their interests with those of Al Qaeda and Iran, and the rest followed.
Decline and fall
How much easier it would have been to keep all these people on the payroll, to buy their cooperation, instead of fueling their desire for revenge. And how much better to have let the Iraqis sort out their new government, rather than micromanage an outcome that had not yet brought stability when the Dissolved Coalition Provisional Authority One year later. Whether or not Rumsfeld had anything to do with those terrible decisions, he supported them and suffered from the results.
The increasing intensity of the ensuing war in Iraq follows Rumsfeld’s popular decline and fall. The same Harris poll who gave the secretary rock star approval ratings in 2001 had it at 47% two years later, and a dismal 34% in November 2005 as casualties increased in Iraq. By then, Rumsfeld’s fiercest critics called him a “war criminal,” but his only “crime” was failure to adapt.
TO paraphrase Rumsfeld, he goes to war with the politicians he has, not the politicians he could wish for. And while the groundbreaking concepts that later became known as the “surge” strategy were discussed by counterinsurgency experts from the beginning of the Iraq war, they did not solidify into successful policy until Rumsfeld and his top lieutenants left the building.
Since then, the secretary’s legacy has been dominated by stridently critical assessments of the conduct of the Iraq war, despite his previous achievements. It will be years before the most objective evaluations begin the Rumsfeld transformation.
James S. Robbins, Member of the USA TODAY Taxpayers Board and author of “This time we won: reviewing Tet’s offense”, He has taught at the National Defense University and the University of the Marine Corps and served as a special assistant in the office of the Secretary of Defense in the George W. Bush administration. He is a Senior Fellow in National Security Affairs at the US Foreign Policy Council. Follow him on Twitter: @James_Robbins
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism