Editore"s Note
Tilting at Windmills

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May 14, 2004
By: Kevin Drum

RUMSFELD....Abu Ghraib aside, has Don Rumsfeld been a good Secretary of Defense? Has he been "the best secretary of defense the United States has ever had"?

The positive side of Rumsfeld's reputation seems to rest on two main pillars: (a) his "transformation" program and (b) our quick initial victory in Iraq. I'm not knowledgable enough about military affairs to comment at length on this, but I wonder how how solid these achievements really are?

Take transformation. Ralph Peters is hardly the final word on this subject, but here's what he wrote about it today:

What of that much-touted transformation so beloved of the neocons? In fact, it's just a plain old con, with nothing neo about it. The Office of the Secretary of Defense hasn't canceled one of the real budget-buster weapons systems designed for the Cold War and kept alive by lobbyists. Only the low-end Crusader artillery piece went to the chopping block as a token (the Army itself decided to cancel the Comanche helicopter).

Rumsfeld's "vision" was to lavish money on the defense industry and administration-friendly contractors, while sending too few troops to war, with too little battlefield equipment, inadequate supplies and no long-range plan. As one Army colonel put it in the heat of battle, "We're winning this despite OSD."

The fact that Rumsfeld rather famously doesn't get along with the top brass is hardly proof that he's wrong in fact, it could be just the opposite but I suspect Peters is basically correct here. The real giveaway is that 9/11 doesn't seem to have changed Rumsfeld's thinking one whit. His vision of transformation stayed exactly the same despite the fact that after 9/11 we were clearly fighting a brand new kind of war.

As for the quick victory in Iraq, I think Rumsfeld may be getting too much credit there as well. Dan Drezner, for example, who is rightly critical of his postwar management, nevertheless says that "Rumsfeld has been proven correct in his warfighting strategies."

Is this really true? There's no question that we won the initial war quickly, but that's primarily because we so vastly overestimated Saddam Hussein's strength. Far from being a brilliant vindication of Rumsfeld's warfighting views, it seems more like a complete breakdown of our intelligence capabilities. If Saddam's army hadn't turned out to be 90% hollow, I wonder how we would have done? And if we mistakenly take this as a lesson for the future, how will we do against an opponent that turns out to actually have a capable military?

On a broad level, it's striking how little impact 9/11 has had on either Rumsfeld or the Bush administration as a whole. Rumsfeld is still obsessed with the idea of technology instead of troops. Cheney and Bush are still pushing missile defense. Nation building and democracy promotion get lip service but nothing else. Proposals for radically transforming the military to focus on nonstate terrorism seem to be nonexistent. And if there's been a change in our intelligence gathering capabilities, it's about the only secret we've managed to keep.

I don't fault John Kerry for not having a brilliant plan for winning or exiting from Iraq. It's just a messy problem. But a far reaching proposal to genuinely transform the military and the intelligence community to fight a new kind of war is something the country desperately needs. It's time to take on the Republicans on their own turf.

Kevin Drum 1:43 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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