Just as Vietnam became McNamara's War, Iraq has become Rumsfeld's War.
From the outset, Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld has inserted himself in almost every aspect of the campaign, from military strategy to postwar planning, and served as the war's public face. In doing so, he's claimed that one of the advantages of such centralized control was that there was a clear point of accountability.
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Now he is being held to account and facing a formidable indictment: rejecting a top general's advice on the force levels that would be needed to restore order to Iraq after Saddam Hussein's regime had been toppled; dismissing State Department advice and plans on postwar reconstruction; failing to realize the seriousness of the early looting and chaos; supporting the disbanding of the Iraqi army without regard to the likely consequences of turning loose thousands of armed and angry unemployed soldiers; and inviting a public relations disaster by circumventing the laws of war to facilitate the indefinite holding and periodic torturing of prisoners. More recently, Rumsfeld has been rebuked for his dismissive treatment of soldiers anxious about inadequate equipment and for adding insult to injury by having a machine sign his condolence letters to bereaved families.
In countering these charges, Rumsfeld cannot complain that he was the victim of poor advice, because the only advice he appears to trust is his own. This was evident from the moment he arrived at the Pentagon and is one reason why comparisons with President Lyndon B. Johnson's defense secretary, Robert McNamara, are apt and illuminating. And just as McNamara left behind the "Vietnam syndrome," when Rumsfeld departs, his bequest may well be an "Iraq syndrome."
At first glance there appears to be little in common between McNamara -- the brash, relatively young, number-crunching corporate manager of the 1960s -- and Rumsfeld, the relatively old, former wrestler and veteran political bruiser of the 2000s. But they share some traits: When it came to the defense budget, both were leery of military advice, which they believed favored certain weapons programs for institutional as much as strategic reasons. And they carried their suspicions forward into operations, leading both to be accused of arrogance. Air Force Gen. Thomas White famously chastised McNamara's Pentagon for being full of "pipe-smoking, tree-full-of-owls" defense intellectuals, much as uniformed officers today disparage the intellectuals surrounding Rumsfeld.
The irony is that for three decades, American interventionists like those surrounding Rumsfeld have been laboring to overcome the Vietnam syndrome and its reluctance to get involved in overseas wars. And now, in their hour of seeming triumph, having waged a war that was largely supported by Americans despite the perils, these interventionists have much to fear. That's because whenever Rumsfeld finally packs up his office at the Pentagon, he will leave behind an even more burdensome Iraq syndrome -- the renewed, nagging and sometimes paralyzing belief that any large-scale U.S. military intervention abroad is doomed to practical failure and moral iniquity.
In 1991, two days before the Persian Gulf War ended, the first President Bush wrote in his diary: "It's surprising how much I dwell on the end of the Vietnam syndrome." For the elder Bush and others who saw the Vietnam syndrome acting as a drag on American foreign and defense policy, the best remedy was to show that the country had learned how to use force effectively. After U.S. forces had evicted Saddam Hussein's invading army from Kuwait, the president said, "By God, we've kicked the Vietnam syndrome once and for all."
The interventionists in the younger Bush's administration couldn't have wished for a better proving ground than another Iraq war, where they would demonstrate not only that the United States would have no trouble sweeping aside a third-rate army but also that it could use its military might to transform a country, not just contain it. This war would pursue the most ambitious foreign policy goals, replacing a dangerous and tyrannical regime with one that was both friendly and democratic.
Now, however, the optimism with which the administration entered Iraq in March 2003 has been severely dented. At best, current strategy promises to keep the lid on a grim situation, in the hope that the enemy will get exhausted before the American people do. At worst, the United States may be forced to withdraw, leaving a country embroiled in civil war and a haven for terrorists. A new standard for foreign policy debacles will then have been set, always to be invoked as the best argument for caution when contemplating the use of force.
Unlike Vietnam, a war of containment, Iraq was supposedly a war of preemption. So the Iraq syndrome poses an even more serious challenge to U.S. policy than the Vietnam syndrome did, because it calls into question not only the wisdom of intervention but the integrity of U.S. intelligence and judgment about what poses a direct threat to U.S. national security.
Particularly damaging for the Bush administration is the allegation that it finds itself in the current mess because it ignored the basic lesson drawn from Vietnam. McNamara (and the aides Colin Powell once called the "slide-rule prodigies") came under attack for failing to leave the conduct of any military campaign to the generals. The conservative critique goes one step farther: Rather than accept the brutal but compelling logic of overwhelming force, McNamara and his top aides placed unwarranted confidence in rarefied academic concepts of graduated response.
But this time, the meddler-in-chief is Rumsfeld. As another Thomas White, fired by Rumsfeld as secretary of the Army in May 2003, complained in an interview on PBS last August, Rumsfeld "micromanages, overcontrols, can be intimidating, almost abusive. He tends to stifle communication, overworks things that he ought to delegate."
But what should the role of the defense secretary be? In a book called "Supreme Command," published just before the Iraq war, Eliot Cohen, a member of Rumsfeld's Defense Policy Board and a professor at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, challenged the post-Vietnam view that civilian leaders, once they define their objectives, should step back and let the military professionals work out the best way to meet them. Cohen argued that successful war requires civilian leaders who are prepared to challenge military judgments. For civilian interventionists, Cohen's book was refreshing, because during the 1990s it was the uniformed officers, many of them Vietnam veterans like Secretary of State Powell, who had become cautious about sending American soldiers off to war in Somalia, the Balkans or the Middle East.
The principle of civilian participation in operational decisions should really not be controversial. If it has become so, it is because civilian-military relations have acquired an adversarial character, for reasons that go deeper than Iraq.