The Magazine

Fighting the Wrong War

From the January 17, 2005 issue: What Rumsfeld's defenders don't want to admit.

Jan 17, 2005, Vol. 10, No. 17 • By FREDERICK W. KAGAN
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CONSERVATIVES HAVE BEEN INCLINED TO defend Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld because many of his critics oppose him for executing a war they don't like, or because these critics' true target is a president they despise. It is quite possible to support President Bush and the war in Iraq and still find fault with Rumsfeld, however. Indeed, some of us find fault with Rumsfeld precisely because we do support the president and the war.

Rumsfeld has much to recommend him, to be sure. He took firm control of a Pentagon that was largely drifting and gave it clear direction. He focused on the importance of military transformation and made it a going concern rather than a conversation piece, as it had been for much of the Clinton presidency. When the nation was attacked, he oversaw two successful military operations in response.

But Rumsfeld has much to answer for, as well. Claims that there are no serious problems with military policy in Iraq and Afghanistan, or with the equipment our soldiers have, or with the number of troops available, are childish and damaging to efforts to identify and solve real problems.

Rumsfeld's defenders are now deflecting all criticism from him onto the Clinton administration, Congress, and the military service chiefs. Take the most serious criticism leveled at Rumsfeld--that he has refused to expand the American military in order to enable it to deal with the strain the current missions are imposing upon our men and women in uniform. The chief of the Army Reserve, in a December 20 memo leaked last week, warned that the Reserve "is rapidly degenerating into a 'broken' force." Rumsfeld's defenders assure us he is not responsible. Only Congress can approve an increase in military end-strength; Rumsfeld has never opposed increasing the armed forces; more troops in Iraq wouldn't help anyway. These are the arguments deployed in behalf of the secretary of defense.

Unfortunately, they are evasions. It is of course true that the military underwent a dramatic reduction starting at the end of the Cold War under the first President Bush. The pace of that reduction accelerated during the Clinton years, and by the mid-1990s some of us were already warning that it had gone too far. By 1996, the military had reached its current size, a modest increment below the reduced strength Bush I had originally called for.

George W. Bush took office declaring that "help is on the way," however, and military observers hoped that meant an increase in defense budgets and force sizes. Defense spending has increased, to be sure, although the huge bulk of the increase went to paying for transformation and for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. There has been no significant increase in the size of the military. According to the Department of Defense Annual Report of 2004, the Active Army rose from 482,170 men and women in 2000 to 488,640 in 2003, while the Total Army (including the National Guard and Reserves) fell from 1,208,642 in 2000 to 1,176,223 in 2003. Although the actual strength of the force is somewhat higher than these authorized figures (there are perhaps around 500,000 in the Active Army today), that increase is temporary and is due in part to a policy of preventing certain soldiers and officers from leaving the force when they wish to do so. In no sense can Rumsfeld claim to have rushed aid to the Army in any way that is helpful in the current crisis.

He has, in fact, consistently and vociferously opposed congressional attempts to offer such aid. In February 2003, he declared, "we will come back and ask for an end-strength increase at any moment that we believe it is in the interests of the armed forces. At the present time we do not have evidence that suggests that's the case." In October 2003, he discouraged Congress from "going into the taxpayers' pockets for a 10,000-person increase, when there's no analytical work that supports it." He added, "Those who argue that the end-strength should be increased, I think, have an obligation to say, 'Where do you want to take the money out of?' What are we going to take it out of? If you increase the Army end-strength by 10,000, are you going to take it out of the Navy or the Air Force or the Marines? Are we going to take it out of research and development and our future? Are we going to take it out of the future combat system or the helicopters or whatever?" In January 2004, he explained, "A permanent increase in end-strength would require cuts elsewhere in the defense budget . . . crowding out funding for various types of transformational capabilities that can allow us to do more with the forces that we currently have." In September 2004, he added, "We have not supported an [increase] in permanent end-strength by statute. . . . And the reason for that, very simply, is we don't need to do that."