DONALD RUMSFELD had the chance to be one of the great American heroes of all time. He held office at a moment of enormous danger. He had many admirable qualities necessary for success. But like the tragic heroes of old, hubris and inflexibility made vices of his virtues, leading to his own fall and the collapse of his life's work.
Rumsfeld was in many ways ideally suited to be secretary of Defense in the wake of 9/11. His experience in the same position under President Ford and as ambassador to NATO seemed to fit him to the task of overseeing a complex military coalition. His determination and self-confidence were essential in a wartime secretary -- and unusual in recent times. When he showed, early in his tenure, that he meant to take positive control of the Pentagon's sprawling bureaucracy, many observers cheered. This was precisely the sort of man the nation needed at the military's helm at a time of crisis.
As former CIA Director Robert Gates prepares to succeed Rumsfeld, the chorus is already rising to declare that Gates must be more open to advice from the military, more of a consensus-builder than a tyrant. Perhaps. It isn't clear how a more open secretary of Defense would have fared given the advice the military gave Rumsfeld.
Belief in the value of technology and the need for light, swift ground forces pervaded the senior military leadership in the 1990s. Then-Army Chief of Staff Gen. Eric Shinseki had launched an ambitious program to "lighten" the Army and equip it with advanced precision weapons. Shinseki certainly warned that more troops would be needed to secure Iraq in the wake of major combat operations. But Gen. Tommy Franks, the commander who developed and executed the actual war plan, wanted fewer. Many officers opposed the "light footprint" approach with which Rumsfeld tackled the problem of the Iraqi insurgency -- but not Gen. John Abizaid, who took over from Franks right after the end of major combat operations. A secretary of Defense who encouraged discussion and dissent would have perhaps anticipated more of the flaws in the policies he was proposing. Still, the strategy that has led to disaster in Iraq belonged to the commanders at least as much as to Rumsfeld. Scapegoating him in isolation will prevent us from learning the essential lessons of our recent failures.
For the problem with Rumsfeld was not his flawed managerial style, but his flawed understanding of war. Early in his term, he became captive of an idea. He would transform the U.S. military in accord with the most advanced theories of the 1990s to prepare it for the challenges of the future. He was not alone in his captivity. As a candidate, President Bush announced the same program in 1999 -- long before anyone thought Don Rumsfeld would return as secretary of Defense. The program, quite simply, was to rely on information technology to permit American forces to locate, identify, track and destroy any target on the face of the Earth from thousands of miles away. Ideally, ground forces would not be necessary in future wars. If they were, it would be in small numbers, widely dispersed, moving rapidly and engaging in little close combat. This vision defined U.S. military theory throughout the 1990s, and it has gone deep into our military culture. Rumsfeld's advent hastened and solidified its triumph, but his departure will not lead instantly to its collapse.
At its root, this "transformation program" is not a program for war at all. War is the use of force to achieve a political purpose, against a thinking enemy and involving human populations. Political aims cannot normally be achieved simply by destroying targets. But the transformation that enthusiasts of the 1990s focused too narrowly on destroyed the enemy's military with small, lean and efficient forces. This captivated Rumsfeld, becoming his passion. He meant it to be his legacy. It was the fatal flaw in this vision that led, in part, to the debacle in Iraq. Focused on destroying the enemy's military quickly and efficiently, Rumsfeld refused to consider the political complexities that would follow that destruction. He and Franks pared the invasion force down to the smallest level that could defeat Saddam Hussein's army, but refused to consider the chaos that would follow the collapse of Hussein's government. This failure is inherent in the military thought of the 1990s. Rumsfeld did not invent it. He simply executed it.