Rumsfeld's Ruminations: What the U.S. is losing

Posted: Dec 05, 2006 10:28 AM
Rumsfeld's Ruminations: What the U.S. is losing

The release of Donald Rumsfeld's November 6 memorandum of options for U.S. forces in Iraq, written on election eve to the White House, ought to remind every American — especially his opponents and enemies — what the country is losing with Donald Rumsfeld's retirement. I fear we are trading a Grant for a McClellan. Grant made a bundle of mistakes, including many costly ones, but he never abandoned the idea of victory. McClellan never reached for the big win. I hope I am wrong, but Secretary-designate Gates does not strike me as the sort of man to write the sort of memo that Secretary Rumsfeld leaves as his testament on Iraq.

The memo, often referred to in the past few days, but only infrequently read, is a case study in the Rumsfeld approach: To question, cajole, probe and — critically — examine every problem from a number of angles. Reading through his 15 preferred options, and his half-dozen "Below The Line" (meaning "less attractive") options, and any fair reader will immediately see that not only was the SecDef on top of the challenges in Iraq, but he was anything but a "stay the course" rigid ideologue.

Whether suggesting the initiation of a "reverse embed" program, or bluntly arguing that the U.S. had to "[s]top rewarding bad behavior," the Nov. 6 memo is an external version of the "snowflakes" which Rumsfeld would send flying around the five-sided building. Notice as well that in the memo there is no posterior-covering or bureaucratic mumbo-jumbo. Rumsfeld is using the terse, pointed language of leadership, the sort of blunt talk that earned him enemies by the hundreds inside the Pentagon, and which before long will be missed by the senior uniformed services if the war accelerates again, as it almost certainly will.

In Bob Woodward's most recent book State of Denial — like Rumsfeld's memo, often referred to but little read — there is a compelling portrait of a radical Secretary of Defense unwilling to be sold a bill of goods on his second tour as Secretary of Defense. In the abrasive, brilliant, compulsive, and confrontational Rumsfeld, senior military officers encountered a military veteran and an experienced civilian who would not take "no" for an answer, nor accept excuses for bad briefings or for being left out-of-the-loop. I have had conversations with two-star generals and many officers of lower grade who were candid in their intense dislike for Rumsfeld, and especially for his often brusque refusal to accept staff work as good enough or thorough enough in its exploration of options.

But even in Woodward's book there is a sense of grudging admiration for the passionate though mercurial Rumsfeld, though it was paired with an almost palpable despair at his inability to understand the limits of experimentation and flexibility in an organization as vast as the Pentagon. His Nov. 6 memo is another example of a relentlessness that did dismay many of the senior commanders — how to investigate 15 options when the war was itself changing daily?

To which a Rumsfeld supporter might ask: How not to investigate every conceivable option when victory is in the balance?

Rumsfeld brought a superhuman energy to the job. Was it too much to ask to expect the military to develop means of responding to that energy?

The answer may very well be yes, but it might be a very definite "no."

This Nov. 6 memo could very well have been leaked by a Rumsfeld partisan, a last marker of a six-year tenure that demanded of the world's greatest military even more, and against which future Iraqi policy will be measured.

Like the president's speeches, there is not a hint of resignation to defeat in Rumsfeld's musings, but only a sounding-out of various approaches. If anything, the memo is a clear denunciation of the "below-the-line" options, including a static approach of "[c]ontinu[ing] on the current path," a huge push on Baghdad, partition, and the backhanded dismissal of a "Dayton-like process." Rumsfeld knew what he didn't see working, and he spelled it out.

My main criticism of Secretary Rumsfeld is the same one I have of President Bush and Vice President Cheney: They do not spend enough time talking to the American people through extended conversations with serious questioners, not the press gaggles in the White House press room that seek a minute of fame, but folks like Brit Hume, with whom the president did sit down on Monday for an extended conversation. Secretary Rumsfeld was indeed busy fighting a war and working the world and the Pentagon, the former on the need for realism and the latter on the need for transformation.

But he was a master of the conversation with the public, and he ought to have continued it at every turn. Before many weeks pass, the Pentagon press, then the American people, and finally large portions of the American military will miss his approach though the hours will indeed be better for the first two groups.

I hope some network has the good sense to offer Secretary Rumsfeld a lengthy exit interview, preferably live, without commercial interruption. Rumsfeld Unplugged — there's an HBO event I'd pay the price to watch.