The Magazine

Secretary of Stubbornness

From the September 15, 2003 issue: Donald Rumsfeld's idee fixe endangers success in Iraq.

Sep 15, 2003, Vol. 9, No. 01 • By THOMAS DONNELLY
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DEFENSE SECRETARY Donald Rumsfeld can claim, as much as any man, to be the architect of victory in Operation Iraqi Freedom. History might also tag him as the architect of defeat in the larger war for Iraq.

The secretary's mulish opposition to increasing the number of American soldiers in Iraq--and the narrow understanding of military "transformation" used to justify that stance--is a prime reason the Bush administration has had to go begging to the United Nations. In return for perhaps a couple of divisions' worth of Turkish, Indian, or Pakistani troops, the administration has suggested it is willing to subject the reconstruction of Iraq to a threat more lethal than Baathism and bin Ladenism combined: a French veto.

There is universal agreement that the current force in Iraq is too small. The commander of the coalition task force in Iraq, U.S. Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, has admitted there were multiple challenges "looming." Among these, he told the New York Times on September 5, are the need to seal the country's borders, disarm large rebel groups, and prevent civil war--a real danger, as Iraq's long-dominant Sunni minority fights to retain its status. "Today, if I had to," said Sanchez, "I could move forces to tackle any one of those challenges, but we would pull forces from an existing mission."

U.S. Central Command says it needs six divisions, four of them American and the rest--anywhere from 20,000 to 40,000 troops--contributed by the coalition. But the failure to line up more allies leaves a pretty significant shortfall and explains the dilemma Sanchez described.

The bombing of the U.N. headquarters in Baghdad made it clear that the rejectionists in Iraq have little regard for U.N. neutrality and will kill whoever they can when it gets hard to kill Americans. Under these conditions, there is little evidence that the rest of the world is prepared to support the U.S. mission in Iraq on the Bush administration's terms. Those terms "seem quite far from what for us is the primary objective," sniffed French president Jacques Chirac. Standing next to Chirac, German chancellor Gerhard Schröder allowed that, although "there is movement" in the administration's position, "it is not dynamic enough. It doesn't go far enough."

The difficulty of getting U.N. approval should be no surprise to the administration, which traveled this road unsuccessfully before the war. Still, the pretense of "internationalizing" the Iraq mission might be worth it if it could produce some tangible military reward--or puncture the posturing of the Democrats, who don't want to be seen cutting and running from Iraq, yet who aren't serious about staying the course either.

But neither of these outcomes is likely. Germany, for example, is simply incapable of making a very useful military contribution in Iraq. The Bundeswehr can neither project much force nor sustain it; it would be a liability both politically and tactically, most likely providing yet another "soft target" for terrorists. So would many other allied forces. Remember, in Somalia it was attacks on Pakistani U.N. troops that began the chain of events leading to the "Black Hawk Down" fiasco and American retreat.

India, for which the Bush administration had high hopes, and which has a serious army, is clearly not yet ready to commit itself to a real strategic partnership with the United States. That may come, but the Indians still have too many internal issues to sort out. So does Turkey--and the Turkish army is already in Iraq, in Kurdistan. Getting a larger Turkish force to police the Syrian border, as has been suggested, is certain to drive the Kurds to distraction. That would be especially foolish given the extraordinary discipline with which both Kurdish factions have behaved during the war and its aftermath. In sum, the problems associated with a larger allied contingent might well outweigh the advantages.

When and if the U.N. finally rebuffs the Americans, President Bush will have yet another chance to extricate himself from the dilemma created by his decision to promulgate the Bush Doctrine with Bill Clinton's military. It's hardly surprising that a force that was, as candidate Bush argued, stretched near its limits, is inadequate for the greater tasks the president has given it. Democrats will, of course, continue to complain about "unilateralism," but American public opinion will almost certainly blame the United Nations rather than the president.