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Rumsfeld’s War and Its Consequences Now


DoD has been organized, trained and equipped to fight big armies, navies and air forces. It is not possible to change DoD fast enough to successfully fight the global war on terror….
—Donald Rumsfeld, October 16, 2003
Donald Rumsfeld, then ambassador to NATO, with Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and President Richard Nixon, Brussels, June 26, 1974

To explain the rapid shifting of the war on terror from attacking the enemy that had attacked the United States, al-Qaeda, to invading the enemy that hadn’t, Iraq, it is not enough to say, quoting Rumsfeld in his notorious response to troops fighting in Iraq in 2004, that “you go to war with the army you have.” (By then the soldiers were begging for “up-armored” Humvees to protect them from the IEDs that were maiming and killing them daily on Iraq’s roads, and the secretary was trying and failing to explain why they didn’t have them.) But if it is true that the post–cold war United States in September 2001 was far and away the world’s preeminent military power, it is also true that its splendid arsenal of high-tech tanks and planes and ships had been designed to fight and win a conventional war, not a counter-insurgency. The US military had last engaged a guerrilla force in Vietnam, and things had not gone well. Memories of this among senior officers remained vivid, and unpleasant.

No army had attacked the United States on September 11. It had been nineteen men, the vanguard of a worldwide insurgency, and if the attacks on New York and Washington had been bold and shocking and outlandish, the goals behind them had been the classic objects of insurgents for millennia: to encourage recruits to join the insurgent cause, to show the vulnerability of the ruling power, and to provoke that power to overreact—to respond to insurgent attacks in such a way that would reveal to the world the regime’s cruelty and repressiveness and so bring the quiescent population (in this case, all Muslims) increasingly over to the insurgents’ side.

Bin Laden had counted on the Americans responding to his attacks in New York and Washington by invading and occupying Afghanistan. (Indeed, to prepare for the expected battle he had dispatched, days before September 11, two suicide bombers disguised as television journalists to assassinate Northern Alliance commander Ahmad Shah Massoud.) America’s coming occupation was to produce images of suffering Afghans that would outrage Muslims from Indonesia to Morocco; al-Qaeda would lead the Afghans in a guerrilla war against the Americans, producing a quagmire that would engulf the last superpower, as it had—so the legend went—the Soviet Union before it.

In the event, of course, the Americans offered a gift undreamt of in al-Qaeda’s philosophy: they invaded and occupied Iraq, a much more important country. The result was catastrophe, not only for Iraq but for the Bush administration’s worldwide “war on terror,” for the invasion seemed to brand Bush’s war, in image after bloody humiliating image of “Americans killing Muslims,” as a new Western crusade against the Islamic world, confirming in every newscast the guiding idea of al-Qaeda’s politics and propaganda.

These were the very images Rumsfeld had warned against in his “Strategic Thoughts” memorandum of September 2001; he knew that such images, far from “dissuading and deterring” prospective terrorists, would recruit and nourish them. How was it that he came to preside over a military producing them day after day, month after month? How did the country come to fight, and then badly bungle, precisely the wrong war? Much has been written about the mystery of the Bush administration and its obsession with Iraq. Or rather obsessions, for one could easily construct a typology of these, beginning, first and foremost, with the young evangelical president who already on the evening of the frenzied surreal day after September 11 would confront his counterterrorism adviser Richard Clarke in the hallway outside the Situation Room. “He grabbed a few of us,” Clarke writes, “and closed the door.”

“Look,” he told us, “I know you have a lot to do and all…but I want you, as soon as you can, to go back over everything, everything. See if Saddam did this….”
I was once again taken aback, incredulous, and it showed. “But, Mr. President, al Qaeda did this.”
“I know, I know, but…see if Saddam was involved. Just look. I want to know any shred…”
“Absolutely, we will look…again.” I was trying to be more respectful, more responsive. “But, you know, we have looked several times for state sponsorship of al Qaeda and not found any real linkages to Iraq. Iran plays a little, as does Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia, Yemen.”
“Look into Iraq, Saddam,” the President said testily, and left us.1

Did the president truly believe that Iraq was behind the attacks, or was he looking to find evidence for an invasion he already had in mind? Paul Wolfowitz, Rumsfeld’s deputy, almost certainly was a true believer and had—to Clarke’s astonishment—insisted on his “Iraq is behind al-Qaeda” theory as early as the previous April, during the administration’s single Deputies Meeting on al-Qaeda. Clarke had ardently and doggedly pushed for this meeting—he was convinced another attack was coming—only to see it collapse into a debate about supposed Iraqi state sponsorship. Even after the September 11 attacks, in the first major “war cabinet” meeting at Camp David that Saturday, Wolfowitz insisted that the war on terror should begin not in Afghanistan but in Iraq:

Rumsfeld turned the table over to Wolfowitz, who began making the case for going after Saddam Hussein. He declared that there was a 10 percent to 50 percent chance that Hussein had been involved in the attacks, although he presented no evidence. Afghanistan would not be a particularly satisfying place to wage a war since it was so primitive that there were few targets; Iraq, on the other hand, had plenty of targets and military action there would be a powerful demonstration that the United States would not sit by idly while a danger like Hussein operated with impunity.2

By this account, Bush eventually grows irritated by Wolfowitz’s persistence, finally declaring, “We are not going after Iraq right this minute. We’re going to go after the people we know did this to us.”


And so they would, dropping the first bomb on Afghanistan on October 7. The American military had not yet become Rumsfeld’s military, with its emphasis on Special Forces; it was CIA officers who led the charge on horseback through Afghanistan, pointing their laser target finders to guide US bombers. Taliban fighters took punishment, then retreated, slipped away; as Wolfowitz had said the targets soon ran out. And when the critical moment came, with Osama bin Laden and much of his al-Qaeda force cornered at Tora Bora, Rumsfeld—so he tells us in his memoir—left the critical decisions to his combatant commander, General Tommy Franks:

Franks had to determine whether attempting to apprehend one man on the run…was worth the risks…. Still, the emphasis on bin Laden concerned me. To my mind, the justification for our military operations in Afghanistan was not the capture or killing of one person. Our country’s primary purpose was to try to prevent terrorists from attacking us again. There was far more to the threat posed by Islamist extremism than one man.

Still, “I made it clear to Franks that if he believed he needed more troops, he would get them as quickly as possible,” and “if someone thought bin Laden was cornered, as later claimed, I found it surprising that [Director of Central Intelligence George] Tenet had never called me to urge Franks to support their operation.” We would hear echoes of this in Iraq. As Nixon discovered, the deft shedding of responsibility was a Rumsfeld trademark.

Bin Laden escaped into Pakistan. He would remain defiantly at large, appearing in propaganda videos, for a decade. The Taliban, having fled the wave of heavy bombing that supported the ramshackle advance of the Northern Alliance, would soon begin filtering back into the country. It didn’t matter. Amid the celebration of the victory in Afghanistan, the eyes of the Bush administration had already turned to Iraq.

What would Rumsfeld hope to find there? He had argued that the “war on terror” should “significantly change the world’s political map.” In this belief he was hardly alone. Henry Kissinger, Rumsfeld’s old antagonist from the Ford administration, when asked why he supported the Iraq war, had reportedly replied, “because Afghanistan wasn’t enough.” The radical Islamists had wanted to humiliate us, he went on, “and we need to humiliate them.”3 This was about restoring national credibility, about rebuilding the national power—consisting in no small part of the image of power—that had been severely diminished by those world-altering real-time pictures of the collapsing towers. Such images must be vanquished, supplanted by those of American tanks rumbling down the streets of an Arab capital.

Proud realists, neither man put much stock in the “democratic tsunami” that, in the fantasy of neoconservative true believers like Wolfowitz, the Iraq war would send sweeping out of Baghdad to engulf the Middle East. Instead they put their faith in “American leadership” and the restoration of American power through a decisive demonstration of American strength.

Beneath all the trappings of “Rumsfeld’s Rules” and the “Strategic Thoughts” and the cockeyed, self-serving epistemology about unknown knowns and unknown unknowns, one discerns a homespun flag-waving American politician. Morris includes in his film a clip of Rumsfeld at a gathering of former secretaries of defense in 1989, lecturing his predecessors and successors about America’s triumph in the cold war:

The credit belongs to Truman and Adenauer and to steadfastness over a period of forty years…. It went to the concept of peace through strength. And we need to understand how we got to where we are because going forward, we’re going to have to make a judgment as to what role our country ought to play, and a passive role would be terribly dangerous. I mean, who do we want to lead—provide leadership—in the world? Somebody else?

The words roll forth, rapid and ardent, an impromptu barn-raiser drawn partly no doubt from his first tour at the Pentagon, and it is evident, as McNamara and Schlesinger and Weinberger and the others look on balefully, that Rumsfeld is first and foremost a patriotic midwesterner, a politician who nourishes in his soul a primordial and undying belief in the manifest need for, and rightness of, American power. To him this truth is self-evident, imbibed at an Illinois breakfast table. Who do we want to lead in the world? Somebody else? The idea is plainly inconceivable. And it is because of that plain necessity for American leadership that after September 11 American power and credibility must at all costs be restored.

Rumsfeld would offer the “creative” plan for the Iraq invasion that his president had requested that tearful evening in September 2001, one that envisioned a relative handful of troops—150,000, fewer than half the number the elder Bush had assembled a decade before for the much less ambitious Desert Storm—and foresaw an invasion that would begin in shock and awe and an overwhelming rush to Baghdad. As for the occupation—well, if democracy were to come to Iraq it would be the Iraqis themselves who must build it. There would be no occupation, and thus no planning for it. Rumsfeld’s troops would be in and out in four months. As he told a then adoring press corps, “I don’t do quagmires.”

It did not turn out that way. Having watched from the Oval Office in 1975 the last torturous hours of the United States extracting itself from Vietnam—the helicopters fleeing the roof of the US embassy in Saigon—Rumsfeld would be condemned to thrash about in his self-made quagmire for almost four years, sinking ever deeper in the muck as nearly five thousand Americans and hundreds of thousands of Iraqis died. He was smart, brash, ambitious, experienced, skeptical of received wisdom, jealous of civilian control, self-searching, analytical, domineering, and he aimed at nothing less than to transform the American military. The parallels with McNamara are stunning.

And month after month in his arrogance and tenacity he would deny an insurgency had taken root. Month after month, as the shortcomings of the army he had sent into Iraq—too small, too conventional, not configured or equipped or trained to fight an insurgency and thus fated in its impotent bludgeoning to make it ever worse—became impossible to deny, he would go on denying them, digging in his heels and resisting the change he had to know was necessary. And even as it became undeniable that Rumsfeld’s war, far from deterring or dissuading prospective terrorists, increasingly inspired and fostered them—that the image of strength and dominance he sought had become one of bumbling and cruelty and weakness—the power of his personality and of his influence over the president meant that for month after month, year after year, he was able to impose his will—and define the world we still see around us.

—This is the first article in a series.

  1. 1

    See Richard A. Clarke, Against All Enemies: Inside America’s War on Terror (Free Press, 2004), p. 32. 

  2. 2

    See Peter Baker, Days of Fire: Bush and Cheney in the White House (Doubleday, 2013), p. 144. We have known about Wolfowitz’s role in this discussion since Bob Woodward’s Bush at War (Simon and Schuster, 2002) but Baker’s account brings new details. 

  3. 3

    See Bob Woodward, State of Denial (Simon and Schuster, 2006), p. 408. See also my “ Iraq: The War of the Imagination,” The New York Review, December 21, 2006. 

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