How Terrible Is It? (Max Rodenbeck, 11/30/06, NY Review of Books)
To whoever wants to listen, several new books offer detailed and persuasive explanations of what has gone wrong in America’s counterterror policy, why it went wrong, and how it may be put right.
One of the best is by Louise Richardson, a Harvard professor who not only has been teaching about terrorism for a decade, but brings the experience of an Irish childhood, including youthful enthusiasm for the IRA, to understanding the phenomenon. As she explains, she had always thought it wise for academics to stay out of politics. The sheer boneheadedness of Washington’s incumbents, who have ignored decades of accumulated wisdom on her subject, prompted her to write a belated primer.
The result is a book that reads like an all-encompassing crash course in terrorism: its history, what motivates it, and the most effective ways of treating it. Her analysis is clear, thorough, illuminating, and provocative. The lesson, as it unfolds, is quietly, authoritatively excoriating about the policies this administration has pursued. Indeed, one would like to see the entire US national security establishment frog-marched into Richardson’s Terrorism 101.
Here are a dozen of her basic points:
1. Terrorism is anything but new. Violence by nonstate actors against civilians to achieve political aims has been going on for a long, long time. The biblical Zealots known as the Sicarii used it against the Romans, as well as against fellow Jews, in the vain hope of provoking the Imperium to so extreme a response that they would foment a mass uprising. Following the failed 1848 revolutions in Europe, the German radical Karl Heinzen published a tract, simply titled Murder, which advocated selective homicide as a spark to general revolt. Various groups soon put such ideas into practice. The Clerkenwell bombing of 1867, carried out by the Fenians, an Irish nationalist group, prompted a surge of hysteria in London reminiscent of the response provoked by September 11.
So, in later decades, did the wave of anarchist terrorism that swept Europe and the United States. Revolutionaries assassinated seven heads of state between 1881 and 1914. Paris suffered bomb attacks no fewer than eleven times between 1892 and 1894. In the 1930s and 1940s of the last century, Menachem Begin’s Irgun organization slaughtered scores of Palestinian civilians and British soldiers. The Israeli leader went on to share a Nobel Peace Prize.
2. Terrorism is obviously a threat, and the deliberate killing of innocent civilians an outrage, but it is not a very big threat. As John Mueller points out in Overblown, his sadly funny, far less patient account of America’s response to September 11, the probability of an American being killed by terrorists is about the same as of being felled by an allergic reaction to peanuts. Six times more Americans are killed every year by drunk drivers than died in the World Trade Center. (And more Americans have now died in Iraq and Afghan-istan.) Excepting a few particularly bad years, the annual number of deaths from terrorism worldwide since the late 1960s, when the State Department started record-keeping, is only about the same as the number of Americans who drown every year in bathtubs.
3. The danger from terrorist use of so-called weapons of mass destruction is not as large as scaremongers profess. Known chemical weapons do not, in fact, cause much wider damage than conventional weapons, and in addition they are difficult to use. The Japanese religious cult Aum Shinrikyo (Aum is Japanese for Supreme Truth), which had excellent technicians and facilities and plenty of money to brew lethal potions, discovered this when it tried to poison the Tokyo subway with sarin gas in 1995. Biological weapons are potentially more deadly, but also hard to make and to diffuse. As for nuclear weapons, there is no evidence that any terrorist group has ever come close to acquiring them. Placing all these dangers in a single category of threat is misleading, and greatly exaggerates the overall threat posed by terrorist groups around the world.
4. Many terrorists are not madmen. The choice to use terror can be quite rational and calculated. In his memoirs, Nelson Mandela recalls that the African National Congress debated what method to use to confront apartheid. Terrorism was considered, but scrapped, mercifully, in favor of sabotage attacks, for fear of alienating potential supporters. The IRA was murderous, but found that planting bombs and then warning of their presence was just as effective as setting them off in crowds. This tactic had the advantage of avoiding some of the “collateral damage” of bad publicity. Other terrorists, such as those linked with al-Qaeda, unfortunately, like bad publicity as much as good.
5. Groups that commit terrorism, in many cases, believe they are acting defensively, using the most effective means at their disposal. Their justifications can be self-serving and morally repugnant, but are often carefully elaborated. Some terrorists rely on the complicity of the people around them, and so must work to persuade them of their rectitude. Others operate in inhospitable environments, and aim more to shock and provoke. It is, Richardson emphasizes, important to distinguish these differing approaches, since they suggest different remedies.
6. Suicide attacks can also represent a rational policy choice. They are cheap. They can be a means of access to difficult targets. They are effective in frightening people, and in advertising the seriousness and devotion of those who undertake them. Typical suicide “martyrs” are not loners or misfits; in their will to die for a cause, they tend to be sustained by the strong solidarity of a close group of collaborators. They are often motivated by personal humiliation at the hands of those they wish to hurt, or they wish to take revenge for the killings of family members or comrades. Suicide attacks are not new, either. They were used, for example, since the nineteenth century by the Muslim Moros guerrillas against both Spanish and US invaders of the Philippines. Before Iraq, their most intensive use in modern times was not in the Middle East but in Sri Lanka, where, since 1987, Tamil rebels have killed hundreds of government soldiers in scores of suicide operations, often carried out by women.
7. There is no special link between Islam and terrorism. Most major religions have produced some form of terrorism, and many terrorist groups have professed atheism. If there is a particular tenacity in Islamist forms of terrorism today, this is a product not of Islamic scripture but of the current historical circumstance that many Muslims live in places of intense political conflict. Contemporary Islamist movements that resort to terrorism are, however, often strengthened in their appeal by the fact that they want to link a faith-based activism, intended to “transform” society, with ethnic and nationalist causes. Most other terrorist groups have not combined their intentions in this way. For instance, the IRA does not have “transformational” aims, as Richardson puts it, but rather territorial ones.
8. Electoral democracy does not prevent terrorism, which has flourished in many democracies, typically being used by groups representing minorities who believe the logic of majority rule excludes them. The Basque separatist group ETA and Greece’s November 17th urban guerrillas started under dictatorships, but continued their attacks following transitions to democracy in both countries.
9. Democratic principles are no impediment to prosecuting terrorists. On the contrary they are, Richardson asserts, “among the strongest weapons in our arsenal.” Pointedly, she recalls that during the Revolutionary War, George Washington, although incensed by Britain’s policy of incarcerating American revolutionaries on grisly prison ships, where twice as many perished as on the battlefield, gave strict orders for the humane treatment of British captives.
10. Military action is sometimes necessary to combat terrorism, but it is often not the best way to do so. When Israel withdrew from southern Lebanon in 2000, after a twenty-two-year occupation, it left behind a far stronger and more determined adversary in Hezbollah than it had started with. The Peruvian army spent twenty years in an ugly, scorched-earth campaign against Sendero Luminoso guerrillas, during which nearly 70,000 people were killed. The group was defeated and disbanded after a change in tactics when a seventy-man police team took just six months, using incisive analysis and good intelligence, to capture its leader. In the cases where brute military action has succeeded, as in Uruguay and Argentina in the 1970s and 1980s, it was at the cost of democracy and human rights.
11. Armies, in fact, often create more problems than they solve. When Britain sent its army into Northern Ireland in 1969 in response to the Troubles, it took just two years for the majority of Catholics, who were at first relieved by their presence, to turn against them. The turnaround for the US in Iraq was far shorter. During the seven months between September 2003 and April 2004, as Charles Peña reminds us in Winning the Un-War, the proportion of Iraqis saying that attacks on foreign troops were somewhat or fully justified leapt from 8 percent to 61 percent. This was exactly the period when a sudden surge in attacks on US forces, following the initial post-invasion calm, prompted vigorous counterinsurgency measures. That is all the time it took, it seems, for Iraqis to decide they did not like being searched, beaten up, shot at, jailed, and humiliated by American troops, whatever the reasons given. Recent polls show some 61 percent of Iraqis still approve of attacking the Americans, and 78 percent believe the US presence is “provoking more conflict than it is preventing.”
12. To address the issues terrorists say they are fighting for cannot automatically be dismissed as appeasement. Britain did not succeed in disarming the IRA by ignoring its de-mands but by engaging them, and by altering the situation in Northern Ireland that had created the IRA’s perception of a threat to its goals. In fact, the conversion of terrorist groups in-to peaceful political movements has often occurred because their rationale for violence has ceased to exist, or because they came to feel that resort to terrorist tactics would limit their room for political maneuver.
One particularly important point of Richardson’s is that few terrorist groups have ever succeeded in achieving their stated primary aim, whether to foment a revolution or to “liberate” a territory. In fact, most of them do not really expect to do so, and are extremely vague about what they would do if they actually succeeded. Osama bin Laden has said next to nothing about what sort of society he would actually like to create, just as Marx never described in any detail what his communist utopia would look like. This may explain why the terrorist groups that have taken power have sometimes produced such incompetent rule —as was the case with Yasser Arafat.
Because terrorists tend to be aspirational rather than practical, their practices typically amount to what Ms. Richardson calls a search for the three R’s of terrorism: revenge, renown, and reaction. As she puts it, “the point of terrorism is not to defeat the enemy but to send a message.” This simple insight is important, because it suggests ways of dealing with terrorism: you must blunt the impulse for revenge, try to limit the terrorists’ renown, and refrain from reacting in ways that either broaden the terrorists’ appeal or encourage further terrorism by showing how effective their tactics are.
Richardson’s three R’s go a long way toward explaining why American policy has become so disastrously askew. As she notes, an act such as September 11 itself achieves the first of her three R’s, revenge. So spectacularly destructive an attack also gains much of the second objective, renown. But the Bush administration’s massive and misdirected overreaction has handed al-Qaeda a far greater reward than it ever dreamed of winning.
“The declaration of a global war on terrorism,” says Richardson bluntly, “has been a terrible mistake and is doomed to failure.” In declaring such a war, she says, the Bush administration chose to mirror its adversary:
Americans opted to accept al-Qaeda’s language of cosmic warfare at face value and respond accordingly, rather than respond to al-Qaeda based on an objective assessment of its resources and capabilities.
In essence, America’s actions radically upgraded Osama bin Laden’s organization from a ragtag network of plotters to a great enemy worthy of a superpower’s undivided attention. Even as it successfully shattered the group’s core through the invasion of Afghanistan, America empowered al-Qaeda politically by its loud triumphalism, whose very excess encouraged others to try the same terror tactics.
This analysis suffers from one fatal mistake that’s especially peculiar in those who seek to explain Terrorism; it fails to consider our response through the lens of terrorism. That is to say, we need to strip away the pejorative connotations and consider the history of American warfare as a particularly consistent and successful use of terrorism to achieve our own liberal ends. Even setting aside the obvious revenge for 9-11 in our destruction of al Qaeda, look at the way we removed both the Taliban and Saddam from power in reaction to that event. Likewise revealing is to consider the dozen points (or at least those that aren’t truisms) as if the terrorists under consideration were us:
(2) No, terrorism by radicals isn’t much of a threat to us, while we are a lethal threat to them. America absorbed 9-11 fairly easily. For OBL, the Taliban, and Saddam it was the end of the line. And whether by bombing, sanctions, or more traditional warfare we’ve been perfectly happy to terrorize Middle Eastern populations and leaders into behaving as we require them to, which is why Libya gave up its nuclear program, the Palestinians held real elections and are now moving towards peace with Israel, and the PLO, Hamas, Hezbollah, the Muslim Brotherhood, etc. are so rapidly evolving into mere political parties.
(3) Their prospective WMD isn’t a threat. Our very real WMD means that no terrorist can ever take control of a state so long as we’re willing to use it or they have cause to fear that we will. We can literally terrorize them out of ascension to power.
(6) Our use of terrorism–as in fire-bombings, use of nuclear weapons, remote cruise missile and Predator attacks, irrespective of collateral damage–is likewise rational. While there’s a perfectly sound argument against Hiroshima and Nagasaki, there was nothing irrational about targeting Japanese civilians in order to make their nation surrender. And while it would have been better to take the Cold War hot and use those same terrifying weapons on the USSR, we ultimately settled instead into a balance of terror that was backed up by volumes of study in things like game theory and rational choice doctrine. Our repeated successes in war are testimony to the rationality of using terror as a weapon of state.
(7-12) It doesn’t matter what the terrorists want in any particular case, the simple reality of America’s existence is that we have inexorably forced liberalization and democratization on unwilling parties for a couple centuries. And we’ve been willing to use far more lethal and terrifying means of coercion than any piddling terrorists have. Asking folks who perpetrated Sherman’s march to the sea on their own countrymen to back off and allow totalitarian regimes to do whatever they want is an exercise in futility.
If the three “R’s” for non-state actors are revenge, renown, and reaction, the three R’s for states ought to be thought of as revenge, reason and results. Until folks stop attacking us, stop giving us other reasons to regime change them, or History ceases to move in exactly the direction that our policies are intended to push it, there’s little reason to believe that America will abandon the Long War for more than brief respites.
As a pro-defense Republican, Bush would have the political capital to bring about genuine, even historic, change. During the campaign, he had vowed to give his Secretary of Defense “a broad mandate to challenge the status quo and envision a new architecture of American defense for decades to come,” and he had chosen Rumsfeld because he believed that he would be more willing and better able than the other candidates to pursue his agenda. The contents and scope of that agenda were not yet known, but Rumsfeld made it clear that his approach to the military was very much hands-on.
Among those gathered at the River Parade Field for the Rumsfeld ceremony was an elderly man with a pleasant, grandfatherly aspect, who, amid the political celebrities and military brass, might have been taken for someone who had strayed from a Pentagon tour group. But within the national-security priesthood Andrew Marshall was something of a legend. He headed a unit called the Office of Net Assessment (he was its first and only director), which had evolved over the years into a sort of in-house Pentagon think tank. That made him the resident deep thinker, and what Marshall, who was in his late seventies, had been thinking about for every President since Richard Nixon (and for two decades before that at the Rand Corporation) was how America could prevail in the next big war.
Marshall’s professional life had paralleled the full sweep of the Cold War. He was admired as a boldly original theorist; in the forty-year strategic chess match between East and West, it sometimes seemed as if Marshall were playing a three-dimensional game. Marshall was among the very few who understood the Soviet vulnerability, and it was largely Marshall who imagined the strategy for exploiting it—the Reagan-era conceit of a winnable nuclear war, based on technologies (such as the unproved missile-defense shield) and levels of expenditure that the Soviets could not hope to match.
Marshall fell out of favor under the Clinton Administration, which saw less call for an esoteric Cold War strategist. But he had already turned his focus on something that he believed was of immense and pressing importance. It was a new way of thinking about the military, an idea with vast implications for every aspect of American defense, from the nation’s weaponry to its global posture, because it would radically change the way America waged war—indeed, it could alter the very nature of war. It was called the Revolution in Military Affairs.
This revolution had begun to unfold in the Cold War’s last stages. In the post-Vietnam nineteen-seventies, the Soviet-led forces of the Warsaw Pact conducted a steady, massive buildup of heavy forces—tanks and mechanized infantry—along the western edge of East Germany and Czechoslovakia. Twenty thousand battle tanks, mostly Soviet, faced west; on the other side, NATO fielded a force of only seven thousand tanks. In the event of a conventional Soviet attack, NATO forces would be forced to wage a fighting retreat until reinforcements arrived, mostly from the United States. One option for countering the Soviet advantage was the deployment of “tactical” nuclear weapons to Europe. Tactical nukes posed obvious political and strategic problems—the NATO allies did not welcome the prospect of even limited nuclear war in Europe, and there was always the chance of escalation into full-blown nuclear conflict.
But the Americans were also working on a non-nuclear weapons system that would change the equation. The top-secret Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency was funding a program called Assault Breaker, which was designed to strike far behind enemy lines, disrupting or destroying follow-on forces, gaining time and cover for the Western alliance to launch a counter-offensive. Assault Breaker was meant to compress the process of locating a target and launching a strike into a synchronized target-and-fire action taking just minutes. DARPA equipped an Air Force plane with an advanced radar system and onboard computers that worked out the target’s coördinates and transmitted them to an Army missile base, which fired rockets toward the target area. In a test of Assault Breaker at the White Sands Missile Range, in New Mexico, the system hit five out of five targets.
In the early nineteen-eighties, Marshall and his colleagues began to notice in their reading of Soviet military literature that the Russians were writing about this new American weaponry with increasing alarm. The Soviets assumed that deployment of Assault Breaker was imminent, and that this American advance represented the dawn of a new military epoch—what the Soviet analysts referred to as a “military-technical revolution.” (The Americans weren’t nearly as attuned to the implications of their own developments. Assault Breaker was not close to deployment; in fact, the Air Force and the Army were disinclined to coöperate, and the joint program eventually died.) Marshall began to analyze this idea, and, after months of study, his office concluded that the Russians had got it right. The Red Army’s Chief of Staff, Marshal Nikolai V. Ogarkov, had recognized that advances such as those tested by the Americans would give conventional weapons many of the strengths of nuclear weapons, without the apocalyptic effects. Implicit in Ogarkov’s insight was the idea that a key breakthrough in technology (for example, microprocessing) could suddenly reconfigure the battle-field—in this case, with accuracy so precise that, Ogarkov wrote, conventional warfare took on “qualitatively new and incomparably more destructive forms than before.”
Marshall was struck by this idea, and, throughout the eighties, he assigned teams of analysts to search for historical instances of such advances. (“What’s amazing,” Marshall told me, “is how much we know, it turns out, about the chariot revolution back in 1700 B.C.”) The example he found most compelling was that of Europe in the years between the twentieth century’s two World Wars. After the Pyrrhic victory of the First World War, France built the finest Army in the world, and an imposing defensive complex of forts, bunkers, and tunnels—the Maginot Line—along its border with Germany. A defeated Germany, on the other hand, had to overcome the constraints of the Treaty of Versailles (forbidding Germany warplanes, tanks, submarines, or heavy guns, and outlawing its general-officer staff) to build Hitler’s Wehrmacht. Yet, in the late spring of 1940, Germany invaded France and won a French surrender in less than six weeks. The stunning German victory was produced by a battlefield innovation, blitzkrieg, that married two relatively new technologies—radio and the internal-combustion engine—to facilitate a tactic of rapid, coördinated movement. The Germans had designed their new panzer divisions to suit this doctrine, and their impact was decisive. The German forces bypassed the Maginot Line, attacked directly through the Ardennes Forest, and dashed to the French rear, sowing chaos en route and forcing a quick surrender.
To Marshall and his associates, the lessons were clear. The side that recognized and exploited such advances gained not just an edge in warfare but an overwhelming advantage; for the side that missed the chance, the consequences could be fatal.
With the impending demise of the Soviet Union, the U.S. was entering a new interwar period. Marshall had no doubt that some new competitor would emerge to challenge the United States, and it struck him as exactly the moment to prepare for the next big war. The U.S. led the world in microchip technology, and the information age promised a dazzling range of military applications, such as advanced sensors, satellite imagery, robotics, and laser systems. The danger would not arise in Europe, Marshall believed, but in Asia—most likely China. The conflict would not be a prolonged ground war, involving massed formations of infantry and tank divisions; rather, there would be long-range precision strikes by “smart” missiles. If there was infantry in the fight at all, it would be in small, specialized units. Marshall supposed, too, that in the global economy these technologies would be available to all. This made it imperative that the U.S. push conflicts to distant battlefields, if possible, and to reduce (or eliminate) such easy American targets as overseas airbases and huge aircraft-carrier battle groups.
In July, 1992, during the race between George H. W. Bush and Clinton, Marshall gave the Pentagon’s senior leaders a formal assessment reflecting his conclusions about the Revolution in Military Affairs. Marshall preferred that term to the Russians’ “military-technical revolution,” because he believed that technology only partly accounted for such bursts of progress. The other critical element was a military’s adoption of entirely new operational concepts, organizational structures, and doctrines. For instance, the French and British had radios, tanks, and airplanes in 1940, but Germany put them to novel use. Marshall wrote that new ideas had to be tested, even if most of them failed. Perhaps most important, the Pentagon needed to stop depending exclusively on the big-ticket weapons that devoured defense dollars and perpetuated the status quo.
Marshall’s assessment came just as the national-security establishment was trying to define America’s posture in a world without a Soviet counterweight. Some, including the first President Bush, Brent Scowcroft, his national-security adviser, and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Colin Powell, were avowed “realists,” who believed that America’s role was to be part of a new world order, with the emphasis on order. But others believed that the U.S. should embrace and, if possible, enhance its position as the world’s sole superpower. Bush’s Secretary of Defense, Dick Cheney, was inclined to this view, as was his top policy official, Paul Wolfowitz, who argued emphatically that the United States should strengthen its military superiority so that potential rivals would have no hope of catching up. Marshall’s Revolution in Military Affairs offered a means to achieve that goal, and both Cheney and Wolfowitz became converts.
There were also converts within the uniformed military, including a few in the senior ranks, but the services were generally skeptical about the R.M.A., as it was now being called. Some of the resistance, particularly in the Army, reflected the belief that Marshall’s vision of long-distance precision strikes ignored the gritty reality of actual war, with soldiers on the ground. Had President George H. W. Bush won another term, he might have been willing to impose upon the military the upheaval that a revolution in military affairs implied. But the last thing the Army was inclined to do while facing cutbacks under the Clinton Administration was tinker with its revered divisional structure, and the Navy was no less inclined to reduce the number of its aircraft-carrier battle groups. Clinton’s last Secretary of Defense, William S. Cohen, had tried to get the Army to transform itself into a lighter, more expeditionary force. But Cohen, a Republican, was frustrated from the start. “I was coming into a Democratic Administration, and that had its own dynamic,” Cohen recalled. “I must say that President Clinton gave me total authority, so it wasn’t a question coming from him. But just dealing with the issue—how do you push transformation in a Democratic Administration? Is this something that’s weakening the military? The perception on the Hill would be ‘Here they go cutting back on the military powers of the Army.’ ”
Still, Marshall continued to promote his revolution. Using his budget at the Office of Net Assessment, he financed his own futuristic war games. The Revolution in Military Affairs thrived in think tanks and seminars.
As Marshall watched Rumsfeld’s official welcoming ceremony, he was hopeful that the revolution’s moment had arrived. During the Presidential campaign, George W. Bush had promised to build a new American military for the twenty-first century. In a speech at the Citadel in 1999, Bush had said that as President he would instruct his Defense Secretary to conduct a “comprehensive review” of the military, to question everything from its force structure and strategy to its acquisition process. He promised not just to make “marginal improvements” but “to replace existing programs with new technologies and strategies, to use this window of opportunity to skip a generation of technology.” That speech was instantly recognized, by those with a trained ear, as the language of the Revolution in Military Affairs.
Marshall had known Rumsfeld over the years, and he liked him. Shortly after Rumsfeld’s induction, the new Secretary arranged to have lunch with Marshall—not, as Marshall had expected, in Rumsfeld’s private office but in the “Sec Def Mess,” a nearby dining room where the guests seldom went unnoticed. “Oh, I think it was very clear,” Richard Perle, a former Reagan defense official and a close adviser to Rumsfeld, recalled. “It went all over the building that Andy was back. It was like Deng Xiaoping’s return.” The President had pledged to conduct a comprehensive review, identifying probable American adversaries, and when and where the next wars would likely occur. Rumsfeld asked Marshall if he would like to take something like that on. Marshall said he could put a team together right away. The Pentagon’s traditional review process, the Quadrennial Defense Review, was just getting under way, and wouldn’t be finished for another nine months. Hundreds of uniformed staff officers from all the services had spent tens of thousands of man-hours trying to answer essentially those questions. This review tended to be an exercise in justifying the budgets, force size, and programs that the military services wanted to protect. Rumsfeld evidently intended to circumvent that process. He told Marshall that he’d like to have the first draft of his strategic review in six weeks. “We delivered on that,” Marshall recalled.
Word of Marshall’s new assignment rang through the Pentagon like a distress signal, which may have been part of Rumsfeld’s plan. Rumsfeld had in mind for the military, and for the Pentagon itself, an agenda of radical reform. He called it “transformation,” and the return of Andrew Marshall meant that it would be guided by the principles of the Revolution in Military Affairs. Rumsfeld intended to remake the American military into a lighter, more agile, more readily useful force that would be able to leverage new technology to project lethal power over great distances.
Marshall would have been the first to say that technology and the Revolution in Military Affairs had very little application to certain kinds of conflict, such as a counter-insurgency fight against some indigenous guerrilla force. But that was the sort of war that no one—on the new Bush national-security team, or certainly in the American military—had any intention of ever fighting. That would be a war like Vietnam.
When war came, with the invasion of Afghanistan, in late 2001, Rumsfeld had only the barest beginnings of a transformed military, but he had a fully formed philosophy that dictated how America would fight. In Afghanistan, it meant routing the Taliban with small bands of American Special Forces and coördinating long-distance air strikes and Afghan ground troops. For the subsequent invasion of Iraq, in March, 2003, the Rumsfeld vision meant getting to Baghdad and toppling Saddam Hussein’s regime as quickly and with as small a force as prudence permitted. Many professional military men strenuously disagreed with Rumsfeld’s war plan, but, fresh from the validating triumph in Afghanistan, he prevailed. […]
The circle of defense advisers that had most ardently advocated the Iraqi invasion, including Richard Perle and Newt Gingrich, had imagined a strategy that wouldn’t require a lasting American presence in postwar Iraq. The plan depended on the recruitment and training of “free Iraqis” to participate in the combat phase of the operation, and the imposition of a provisional government, run mostly by Iraqi exiles, after the war. Something like that had worked in Afghanistan, and, the reasoning went, the approach stood an even better chance of working in Iraq; Iraqi exiles had been planning for such an eventuality for more than a decade. But the program to train Iraqi fighters produced fewer than a hundred recruits; it also ignored the reality that prominent exiles like Ahmad Chalabi had less credibility, and less of an indigenous base, than those whom the U.S. had relied on in Afghanistan. The Defense Department’s plan to set up a provisional Iraqi government was abandoned after a bitter interagency argument within the Bush Administration that lasted until the very eve of the war. The State Department and the Central Intelligence Agency refused to endorse the imposition of a provisional government composed of Iraqi exiles, arguing that it would not be seen as legitimate. In the end, Rumsfeld surrendered on the point—to the lasting distress of the hawks nearest him. “I think he made a serious mistake,” Perle, a member of Rumsfeld’s advisory Defense Policy Board, recalled. “I think he underestimated the importance of getting those matters right.”
President Bush, with Rumsfeld’s approval, ultimately decided that postwar Iraq would be governed by an American-led Coalition Provisional Authority, to be headed by a veteran diplomat, L. Paul Bremer. With that appointment, and the implicit personal authority conveyed therein, came a critical, and not entirely intended, shift in American postwar policy. Bremer became the American proconsul in Iraq, technically reporting to Rumsfeld’s Defense Department but exercising a degree of authority that came to surprise even Rumsfeld. Bremer began his tenure, in May, 2003, by issuing a series of edicts that included the disbanding of the Iraqi Army and the removal of senior Baath Party members from government jobs. (Bremer said that he was acting on instructions from the Pentagon.) The edicts signalled that Baathists would have no place in the new Iraq, but they also crippled the bureaucracy and eliminated the most important instrument of Iraqi unity and a crucial tool in establishing order. In effect, half a million men, many with guns, were sent into the streets.
These moves had a decisive impact on the coalition’s response to the widening insurgency. A huge instant bureaucracy was set up inside the walls of Saddam’s former Republican Palace, where Americans laboriously laid plans for undertakings ranging from the design of a new Iraqi flag to the restructuring of the Iraqi monetary system. Meanwhile, no coherent, unified plan to fight the insurgency emerged, which rendered such plans increasingly abstract. “It was Alice in Wonderland,” recalled Gary Anderson, a defense specialist who was dispatched to Iraq by Paul Wolfowitz to help set up an Iraqi civil-defense corps. “It was surreal. I mean, I was so depressed the second time we went there, to see the lack of progress and the continuing confusion. The lack of coherence. You’d get two separate briefs, two separate cuts on the same subject, from the military and from the civilians.”
To Wolfowitz and others who had advocated the quickest possible turnover of authority to Iraqis, the C.P.A. was a maddening obstacle to the ever-dwindling hope of replicating the Afghanistan success.
The irony, of course, is that Rumsfeld failed to follow his own doctrine when he made that shift to occupation. Fortunately, the take-away is obvious: topple regimes by any means necessary–and we have quite some means–don’t fight insurgents hand-to-hand. And we’re very skeptical that the neo-cons understood this, rather than being cheerleaders for staying and nation-building, as witness. Rumsfeld’s self-inflicted wounds: The outgoing defense secretary was too focused on transforming the military, and failed to plan for achieving political goals in Iraq. (Frederick W. Kagan, November 12, 2006, LA Times)
Belief in the value of technology and the need for light, swift ground forces pervaded the senior military leadership in the 1990s. Then-Army Chief of Staff Gen. Eric Shinseki had launched an ambitious program to “lighten” the Army and equip it with advanced precision weapons. Shinseki certainly warned that more troops would be needed to secure Iraq in the wake of major combat operations. But Gen. Tommy Franks, the commander who developed and executed the actual war plan, wanted fewer. Many officers opposed the “light footprint” approach with which Rumsfeld tackled the problem of the Iraqi insurgency — but not Gen. John Abizaid, who took over from Franks right after the end of major combat operations. A secretary of Defense who encouraged discussion and dissent would have perhaps anticipated more of the flaws in the policies he was proposing. Still, the strategy that has led to disaster in Iraq belonged to the commanders at least as much as to Rumsfeld. Scapegoating him in isolation will prevent us from learning the essential lessons of our recent failures.
For the problem with Rumsfeld was not his flawed managerial style, but his flawed understanding of war. Early in his term, he became captive of an idea. He would transform the U.S. military in accord with the most advanced theories of the 1990s to prepare it for the challenges of the future. He was not alone in his captivity. As a candidate, President Bush announced the same program in 1999 — long before anyone thought Don Rumsfeld would return as secretary of Defense. The program, quite simply, was to rely on information technology to permit American forces to locate, identify, track and destroy any target on the face of the Earth from thousands of miles away. Ideally, ground forces would not be necessary in future wars. If they were, it would be in small numbers, widely dispersed, moving rapidly and engaging in little close combat. This vision defined U.S. military theory throughout the 1990s, and it has gone deep into our military culture. Rumsfeld’s advent hastened and solidified its triumph, but his departure will not lead instantly to its collapse.
At its root, this “transformation program” is not a program for war at all. War is the use of force to achieve a political purpose, against a thinking enemy and involving human populations. Political aims cannot normally be achieved simply by destroying targets. But the transformation that enthusiasts of the 1990s focused too narrowly on destroyed the enemy’s military with small, lean and efficient forces. This captivated Rumsfeld, becoming his passion. He meant it to be his legacy. It was the fatal flaw in this vision that led, in part, to the debacle in Iraq.
These guys, presumably because they’re so anti-Shi’a, have too little faith in the people we liberated.