It is relatively easy to comprehend the thinking, motives, and ideas of those who embark on wars. At the inception of conflicts, all advocates of war are very similar, regardless of time and place, and a simplistic euphoric optimism suffuses their thinking. They expect triumph and glory, not ashes. More than most nations, however, optimism is integral to the American creed.
Defeat is a wholly different matter. Denial, fantasy, illusions and wish fulfillment-how do politicians confront failure? They find it too difficult to face the enormous damage they have done and the immense losses they created. If the rulers of Germany, Russia, Japan, Italy and others had known the momentous social and political costs their wars would entail, they surely would have been far more reluctant to embark on adventures that were to bring their societies to an end and radically change much of the history of the past century.
Disjunction and irrationality become the norm in these kinds of situations, and responses that seem bizarre are fairly predictable. Rationality often disappears in this process and denial-and delay–becomes the norm. That is happening now in Washington, and probably in London and Canberra as well, because Bush’s foreign policy has produced an immense disaster and there is less peace and stability in the world and security at home than anytime since 1945. Donald Rumsfeld’s December 15th farewell speech as Defense Secretary should be read in this light, but also as a as reflection of the much larger problem of the way American foreign and military policy has been conducted for decades. It is probably the precursor of those we have yet to hear-and will. If his speech were not so important it would simply be pathetic.
Rumsfeld: “Shock and Awe”
Rumsfeld is one of the most articulate advocates of the two major wars the U. S. has embarked upon since 2000, and he had earlier made it plain to George Bush when he took office as Secretary of Defense that he would be “forward-leaning.” September 11 was an opportunity to realize dreams of heroism and success. He and Vice-president Dick Cheney are soul mates, their careers have been intertwined, but Cheney seeks to keep out of the limelight and Rumsfeld adored the publicity that his cleverness attracted. He is best known for his desire to make the military both meaner and leaner, relying on high tech rather than manpower, and “shock and awe” became his slogan. But to do so, national defense spending, which had been stable in the 1990s, increased from $294 billion in 2000 to $536 billion in 2006, and as a percentage of the GNP it grew 37 percent from 2000 to 2006. All kinds of weapons, many the futuristic products of junk science concocted by well-placed manufacturers, were funded for eventual production-a dozen years being a short delivery time for many of them.
Rumsfeld’s military dream was technology-intensive, even more now than 40 years ago, and it failed abysmally in Iraq. Army manpower, however, was reduced and it was left unprepared in countless domains, under-funded and overstretched even before the Iraq war began. Since then its “readiness” in terms of available troops and equipment has only fallen precipitously. And while Rumsfeld made the Army his enemy, even the Air Force now has to cut manpower to raise funds for new equipment.
He always premised his ambition, which various defense secretaries had attempted before him and failed, on the notion that the secret of military success was better and more weapons-“more bang for the buck” as an illustrious predecessor phrased it. More bucks also made the Pentagon requests that much more palatable to a pork-hungry Congress eager to increase spending in their districts. Politics and complex diplomacy never interested people like Rumsfeld, even after the abysmal failure of the Vietnam War. Delivering bad news, which meant serious assessments, was the best way not to advance in the hierarchy, and careerism was crucial to what people said. The name of the game was the game.
In both Afghanistan and Iraq he learned that realities were far more complex and he managed to shock and awe himself and the neoconservatives who shared his naïve assumptions. Reliance on high tech did not prevent warfare from becoming protracted, and it guaranteed that it would become far more costly. Both wars produced stalemates that have become the preludes to American defeats now staring the Bush administration in the face.
Rumsfeld showed at various times that in certain ways he was a person of superior intelligence notwithstanding the basically erroneous premises of the military system he led and the imperatives of ambition that demanded he share them. But like his peers, he learned far too slowly. He suffered from the typical contradiction between intelligence and ambition, and the latter requires an ideology and assumptions which most men-of-power come to believe. He admitted in a confidential memo in October 2003 that “we lack the metrics to know if we are winning or losing the global war on terror;” even then key members of the Bush Administration were far less confident of what they are doing.
His November 6, 2006 memo on the Iraq war admitted that “what U.S. forces are currently doing in Iraq is not working well enough or fast enough.” There are some anodynes he advocated too, but it was rightly interpreted as his concession to the Baker-Hamilton panel view, which is the voice of the traditional foreign policy Establishment, that the Iraq war was going disastrously-in effect, was being lost. Since then, former Secretary of State Colin L. Powell has declared there is a civil war raging in Iraq and there should be a drawdown of American troops, to begin by the middle of next year-a step that even Rumsfeld favored with modest withdrawals that would compel the Iraqis “to pull up their socks.”
Rumsfeld and his peers know the American military cannot win the war in Iraq. Just as during the Vietnam war, they have the quixotic hope that a solution for the profound and bloody turmoil that reigns there can be found politically-at first the Shiites, Sunnis, and Kurds were to have parliamentary elections and then make a political deal. They did not. Then they were to write a constitution, which they eventually managed to do but it changed nothing. Now they are hoping that the prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, can miraculously cobble together some kind of consensus that will produce peace, but Bush’s closest advisers think it is very likely he will fail. They have no one else to turn to. Politics, like military power, will not prevent the United States from losing control over events in Iraq-thereby losing the war. A “surge” in American troops in Iraq, as even the Joint Chiefs of Staff now argues, is only a recipe for greater disasters. Attacks against U. S. coalition forces, their Iraqi dependents, and civilians have now reached a peak and are over twice that two years ago. The Bush Administration today confronts disaster in Iraq, and probably the worst foreign policy failure in American history. Futility is the hallmark of all its efforts.
Rumsfeld’s Final Thoughts
Rumsfeld’s farewell speech on December 15th is therefore all the more remarkable because it attempts to revive older notions, long discredited and seriously at odds with facts that he himself accepted only weeks earlier. It represents a type of recidivism that is all-too-common when disaster approaches and it reveals the kind of intellectual schizophrenia that afflicts those who rise the top. It is a symptom of the complete failure of the crew that has led the U. S. for the past six years, and their total inability to confront reality.
Rumsfeld’s final words are Soviet-centric, and he reiterated his 1977 declaration that “weakness is provocative.” If “aggressors” in our “new era” perceive weakness or a lack of resolution they are enticed “into acts they otherwise would avoid.” But “the enemy” consists of “unstable dictators, weapons proliferators and rogue regimes” ready to use “unconventional” and “irregular” threats. They mix “extremist ideology” with modern weaponry. The “perception of weakness” is provocative, as is the “reluctance to defend our way of life.” The unnamed enemy is resolved to destroy “freedom.” Concretely, Rumsfeld thinks the U.S. should “invest more” to protect itself.
His mélange includes a theory of credibility, a notion that got America into the Vietnam debacle. Credibility is certainly now a factor in the Iraq-Afghan wars, one shared by many administration leaders. Rumsfeld does not confront why persisting until utter defeat will make the U.S. look not credible but dangerously irrational. His speech is historically and factually wholly inaccurate. It ignores entirely that the existence of modern weapons in Saddam Hussein’s hands was used as an excuse for the Iraq war but not found there. Many of the unstable dictators, rogue regimes, Islamic fundamentalists, and what have you were useful allies in the American confrontation with the USSR and Communism, and America gave them both weapons and training. This policy was bipartisan, pursued by Democrats as enthusiastically as by Republicans, and reflects the consensus which the Bush Administration shares with its predecessors, a fact that explains why the Democrats refuse to break with the President’s wars.
Had the U.S. not intervened covertly and overtly after 1947 to undermine countless regimes it thought dangerous, even though most were neutralist, reformist, and legitimate, there would be far fewer extremists today for it to worry about. But that they now pose some sort of fatal danger to the United States is a sheer fantasy that the Bush Administration has concocted to justify a foreign policy the American people now reject.
Rumsfeld’s final speech bears no relation whatever to the realities the U. S. now confronts, not just in the Middle East but everywhere. Like the president and those around him, it refuses to confront reality.
The American Way of War
The fact is that the immense and costly American military today bears no relationship to politics and reality. It accounts for nearly half of the world’s military expenditures but it cannot win its two wars against the most primitive enemies, enemies who exist in multiple factions who often fight each other more than Americans and who could not care less what Washington spends on weaponry and manpower. But America’s leaders have always assumed convenient enemies who calculate the way the U. S. wants them to. More important, politics was never complicated; it existed as an afterthought and never interfered with fighting and winning wars the American way. But the Soviet Union and Communism no longer exist, and absolutely nothing has changed in America’s behavior and thinking. The Pentagon is superb at spending money but its way of warfare in now in a profound and perhaps terminal crisis. It has lost all its wars against persistent guerillas armed with cheap, light weapons that decentralize and hide.
The military system that Rumsfeld and his precursors created is increasingly dysfunctional and meant only to suit the expensive demands and pretensions of the powerful companies in the military-industrial complex. The emphasis on expensive weaponry is good for the American economy; successful counterinsurgency war costs too little to maintain full employment. It bears scant relationship to the political problems that the U. S. has confronted for decades-and more now than ever.
America’s weapons are made to fight state-centric wars and destroy concentrated targets-they were designed originally for the USSR and its Warsaw bloc allies, and for European conditions. China compelled some minor modifications in this strategy. Even ignoring that nuclear deterrence made this emphasis irrelevant, or that the Korean and Vietnam wars proved it was destined to fail, it took (and still takes) 15 to 20 years to develop and produce this equipment. But Communism has disappeared in Europe and in all but name in China. The budgeting cycle, which keeps the economy of the U. S. buoyant and is deftly spread to numerous Congressional districts, bears no relation to American foreign policy, which makes former friends foes, ex-foes allies and members of NATO, and changes every few years like a kaleidoscope. As a very recent study for the U. S. Army Strategic Studies Institute concludes, “the United States [is] prepared to fight the most dangerous but least likely threats and unprepared to fight the least dangerous but most likely threats.”1 The American way of war is technology intensive, firepower focused, logistically superior but politically and culturally ignorant to the point of being pathetic.
Rumsfeld did not initiate this myopia, which has been inherent in the U.S.’ foreign and military policies after 1947 regardless of whether Democrats or Republicans were in power. He only attempted to apply it to Afghan and Iraqi conditions, to sand and heat, to profoundly divided places, and he only continued the legacy of failures that began long ago.
GABRIEL KOLKO is the leading historian of modern warfare. He is the author of the classic Century of War: Politics, Conflicts and Society Since 1914, Another Century of War? and The Age of War. He has also written the best history of the Vietnam War, Anatomy of a War: Vietnam, the US and the Modern Historical Experience. His latest book is After Socialism.