The outrageous gaps between Rumsfeld’s statements about the war and the brutally ugly reality eventually left his reputation, if not his self-confidence, in tatters, but for a few years he rode high. At news conferences he was a charming, roguish, happy warrior, doing battle with reporters, delivering more one-liners than any secretary of defense in history. Who can forget his “known-unknowns,” his “I don’t do quagmires,” his “you go to war with the army you have.” That last line, delivered in response to a soldier asking why, in a war of choice, he was reduced to scavenging for scrap metal to use for protection on his Humvees, inspired Marine Corps veteran Mac William Bishop to write on Twitter, hours after the announcement of Rumsfeld’s death on Tuesday: “You go to the grave with the reputation you have, not the reputation you want.”
Yet today, when it comes to the use of American military might, we live in Rumsfeld’s world. The “Rumsfeld doctrine,” as it was called, survives.
The defense secretary’s disastrous early decisions weren’t the result of stupidity so much as his unshakable adherence to a vision of American warfare that outlives him. That vision imagined a military that eschews the fetters of international institutions and nation-building, and instead conducts rapid strikes using technology and air power and small specialized units rather than large ground forces.
If that sounds familiar, it’s because that’s a good description of how we’ve been using our military in recent years. From 2018 to 2020, American forces have engaged in combat in eight nations (Afghanistan, Iraq, Kenya, Mali, Nigeria, Somalia, Syria and Yemen) and supervised forces in four other countries (Cameroon, Libya, Niger and Tunisia), where they may or may not have planned and controlled the combat missions of proxy forces. We’ve also conducted airstrikes or drone strikes in seven countries (Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Pakistan, Somalia, Syria and Yemen). We’ve relied so heavily on elite forces in recent years that one Pentagon official declared in 2018 that the Special Operations community’s pace has forced them “to eat our young” and “mortgage our future.”
You get a slight sense of the physical and psychological toll of that pace of operations on warfighters when stories break periodically about rampant drug use in elite units, or a horrific rash of murders among the Special Operations community, but generally Americans hear about these operations only when someone dies in combat. Donald Trump even removed troop numbers in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria from the accounting provided to Congress in December 2017, and they’ve been kept opaque ever since. Compared with massive undertakings like earlier iterations of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, these wars stay out of view. They don’t seem especially costly (at first), nor are they especially risky (for Americans — in 2020, international forces caused at least 120 civilian casualties in Afghanistan).
Yet small numbers of troops can have huge effects. Afghanistan was an early test for the Rumsfeld doctrine. Instead of a huge invasion force, we routed the Taliban with small teams of Special Forces. They worked with local Afghan allies and directed airstrikes that devastated Taliban units, who crumbled in the face of superior air power.
At first, it all seemed like a stunningly successful proof of the concept — a horrible regime was toppled with limited American costs and casualties. But the limited troop presence on the ground may have also let al-Qaeda and Osama bin Laden slip through our fingers, only to reestablish operations in Pakistan. It meant we didn’t secure much of the country beyond Kabul, so we instead entrusted large swaths to warlords, ignoring major development needs and effectively giving the Taliban the time and space it needed to regroup. Now we’re withdrawing from Afghanistan amid fears that Kabul could fall soon after we leave.
But that process played out slowly. The unraveling of countries we don’t care much about in the aftermath of the violence we do isn’t always dramatic. The Rumsfeld doctrine meant cheap wars whose true costs wouldn’t be apparent for years.
Those hidden costs allowed Rumsfeld some time to show his skill at those unforgettable news conferences, an aspect of his job in which he truly excelled. He was so great at news conferences. So in control. This was the man People magazine declared “Sexiest Cabinet Member” of 2002. This was the man Jay Nordlinger called “The Stud — America’s New Pin-Up” on the cover of National Review — a slick operator delivering one juicy sound bite after another, succeeding brilliantly in front of the cameras, while failing at his actual job.
Eventually his disastrous mismanagement of our wars caught up with him, leading to his ultimate resignation a few months before I headed over to Iraq in January 2007. The gap between reality and image had expanded to a level no amount of witty repartee with the press could overcome. The wars were too big, too horrific, had strayed too far from his contained vision of what they were supposed to be. But the vision survived even if Rumsfeld’s outsize presence didn’t. American presidents since have taken heed. Keep the wars small. Keep them out of sight. And few will care enough to hold you accountable.