This is an important book, but a difficult one to get through. This is the case not because of turgid writing or poor analysis, but because it is so disturbing. Donald Rumsfeld had a reputation as a superb administrator and organizer when he took office as President George W. Bush’s Secretary of Defense in 2001. Having served both in that capacity and in a range of other senior governmental posts in previous Republican administrations, he brought a wealth of experience and understanding about the manner in which the U.S. government operated. But he was also well known as an arrogant, ruthless bureaucratic infighter. Some, even inside the Republican Party, distrusted him and were sure that he would sell out his best friend for personal gain.
Dale Herspring, a retired Foreign Service officer and Navy veteran, is a faculty member at the University of Kansas. His work, Rumsfeld’s Wars: The Arrogance of Power, reviews the experience of Rumsfeld at the Pentagon. He especially analyzes two major elements of his experiences in the DoD. The first was his stated task upon entering the SECDEF job of military transformation, a shorthand for the reorganization of the services into smaller, more nimble, more technologically advanced, and presumably more flexible and effective armed forces needed for the twenty-first century. Many people inside the defense establishment had been talking about transformation since the end of the Cold War; the loss of the Soviet Union meant that the dominant concerns of more than 40 years had changed and the military needed to change in response. Rumsfeld was certain that he had the answer to what was needed in this transformation, and refused to listen to others and to take other perspectives seriously.
In implementing his presumed reforms he disregarded the advice of his senior officers, some of whom were just as committed as he to transforming the military, and according to Herspring even went so far as to seize control of the promotion system to ensure that only those with whom he thought he could work reached positions of leadership. This was unprecedented in the last half of the twentieth century and said to the military brass that he considered them incompetent and unprofessional as well as deserving only of his manipulation. As you might guess, Herspring documents a succession of failures, some of them brought on by Rumsfeld through his “arrogance of power,” but also because he was abandoned by the officer corps who through inaction and sometimes active resistance sidetracked his efforts. Although probably not intended by Herspring, this discussion reads like a Greek tragedy as hubris overcomes the central character and leads to failure and collapse.
Even more to the point is Herspring’s analysis of the second great challenge of Rumsfeld’s leadership of the DoD, the Iraq War. Again, Rumsfeld, with the help of key Neocons Donald Feith and Paul Wolfowitz, totally failed through both ignorance and arrogance. Wanting desperately to build a case for attacking Iraq in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks in Washington and New York, Rumsfeld—who actually was not much of a Neocon himself—allowed Feith to run wild in the Pentagon using his specially created “Office of Special Plans” to sift through raw intelligence data in search of linkages between al-Qaeda and Saddam Hussein. While the revelations on torturing detainees to build this connection had not yet come out and Herspring did not relate anything on this aspect of part of the story, he makes clear that Feith’s actions were far beyond the norm.
Herspring wrote of Feith’s efforts, “They were certain these linkages were there; it would only be a matter of putting things together…This approach runs counter to that of professional intelligence analysts. Either there is a connection or there isn’t, no matter how many leads are followed” (p. 104). It was a type of desperation that Herspring documents, and it took the U.S. into a war that was unnecessary and the aftermath of which was exceptionally poorly executed. Inside of the government, others questioned this effort as well, especially Secretary of State Colin Powell, who said of Feith’s argument about a connection between 9/11 and Iraq, “This is bullshit” on February 2, 2003 (p. 122). Nonetheless, he presented a toned-down version of it before the U.N. on the fifth.
Rumsfeld also accepted the Neocon assessment that the Iraqis would greet the Americans as liberators and the DoD failed to plan for the aftermath of the toppling of Saddam Hussein. Essentially there was no plan beyond purging Iraq of the Baathists who had run everything in the nation under Saddam’s direction. They did almost as poorly in disbanding the army. All of this was intended to rid the halls of power of individuals loyal to Saddam but by dismissing them, Iraq lost virtually all of the people who had the skills necessary to maintain order, keep utilities working, etc. Moreover, it really ticked off the very same people, and some of them organized the opposition that grew up in Iraq within a few months of the American occupation. Rumsfeld, in presiding over this process, “refused to work with the rest of the government, being convinced that only Defense knew how to approach political problems like de-Baathification” (p. 144).
When confronted with the realities of failure in Iraq, Rumsfeld was both arrogant and obnoxious. Herspring makes the case that one instance shows this better than any other. In late 2004 a solder asked him, “Why do we soldiers have to dig through local landfills for pieces of scrap metal and compromised ballistic glass to up-armor our vehicles?” Rumsfeld responded, “You go to war with the army you have.” Herspring’s comment is telling: “Instead of expressing concern and talking about what Washington was doing to solve the problem, the young man was basically told, ‘suck it up, you have what you have’” (p. 177). More than a year after taking down Saddam, there was no excuse for not providing the troops what they needed to maximize the change of their survival and a successful accomplishment of their mission.
In the end, Herspring has offered a valuable analysis of what happened in the Pentagon under Rumsfeld, and by extension the problems of the military in Iraq. It is not surprising that President Bush would sack Rumsfeld, but he waited far too long. The same is even truer of some of his underlings in the DoD. What a mess, and it’s far from resolved. Herspring, I should add, is not a partisan in this story. He approaches it as scholar who seeks to document what has happened and why.