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Rumsfeld and His Critics

Did the military really have a better understanding of Iraq?

12:00 AM, May 3, 2006 • By MACKUBIN THOMAS OWENS
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It is true that Rumsfeld downplayed the need to prepare for post-conflict stability operations, but in this he was merely ratifying the preferences of the uniformed military. When it comes to post-conflict stability operations, the real villain is the Weinberger-Powell Doctrine, a set of principles long internalized by the U.S. military that emphasizes the requirement for an "exit strategy." But if generals are thinking about an exit strategy they are not thinking about "war termination"--how to convert military success into political success. This cultural aversion to conducting stability operations is reflected by the fact that operational planning for Operation Iraqi Freedom took 18 months while planning for postwar stabilization began half-heartedly only a couple of months before the invasion.

IN RETROSPECT, it is easy to criticize Rumsfeld for pushing the CENTCOM commander, Gen. Tommy Franks, to develop a plan based on a smaller force than the one called for in earlier plans--as well as for his interference with the Time-Phased Force and Deployment List (TPFDL) that lays out the schedule of forces deploying to a theater of war. But hindsight is always 20-20, permitting us to judge another's actions on the basis of what we know now, not what we knew then. Thus the consequences of the chosen path--to attack earlier with a smaller force--are visible to us in retrospect while the very real risks associated with an alternative option--e.g. take the time to build up a larger force, perhaps losing the opportunity to achieve surprise--remain provisional.

The debate over the size of the invasion force must also be understood in the context of civil-military relations. The fact is that Rumsfeld believed that civilian control of the military had eroded during the Clinton administration. If the Army didn't want to do something--as in the Balkans in the 1990s--it would simply overstate the force requirements: "The answer is 350,000 soldiers. What's the question?"

Accordingly, Rumsfeld was inclined to interpret the Army's call for a larger force to invade Iraq as just one more example of what he perceived as foot dragging. In retrospect, Rumsfeld's decision not to deploy the 1st Cavalry Division was a mistake, but again he had come to believe that the TPFDL, like the "two major theater war" planning metric, had become little more than a bureaucratic tool that the services used to protect their shares of the defense budget.

Retrospective criticism is easy. Rumsfeld's detractors would be much more credible if they could point to an instance in which their ability to discern the future was substantially superior to that of the man they have attacked.

Mackubin Thomas Owens is professor of national security at the Naval War College.