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Was winning in Iraq an afterthought?


Or, Why Dick Cheney was right the first time.

It's not often mentioned anymore, but it's worth returning once more to Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld's October 2003 memo, briskly leaked to the press within days of its delivery to key subordinates. Rumsfeld poses a series of important questions, starting with "Are we winning or losing the Global War on Terror?" His memo then swiftly descends into a conceptual muddle, symptomatic of the larger and continuing inability of the national security apparatus to think in coherent strategic and political terms.

After posing his questions, the Secretary evaluates progress in this global conflict in four areas:

  1. fighting al-Qaida
  2. "capturing or killing the top 55 Iraqis" (the so-called "deck of cards")
  3. "tracking down the Taliban"
  4. fighting Ansar al-Islam (a terrorist organization alleged to be well established in Iraq)

What stands out about this approach is, first, how it lumps the separate battles in Afghanistan (the Taliban) and Iraq (the deck of cards and Ansar al-Islam) together with the global fight against al-Qaida; and second, how it defines success in narrow and artificial terms reminiscent of Vietnam-era body counts.

On this second score, Rumsfeld almost concedes that he doesn't know how to measure progress, writing, "Today, we lack metrics to know if we are winning or losing the global war on terror." But his next sentence assumes that we lack only the right data: "Are we capturing, killing or deterring and dissuading more terrorists every day than the madrassas and the radical clerics are recruiting, training and deploying against us?"

Just supply the right numbers, he is saying, and you can solve the victory equation. In any event, Rumsfeld writes, we will prevail sooner or later: "It is pretty clear that the coalition can win in Afghanistan and Iraq in one way or another, but it will be a long, hard slog."

So, bizarrely enough, the Secretary of Defense has chosen to analyze prospects for victory in Iraq without mentioning either the need to defeat the insurgency or the establishment of a stable, democratic postwar order -- the Administration's stated objective. It is as if he believes that victory consists only of wrapping up a few dozen major figures from the overthrown regime -- Saddam, his sons, and his key advisers and officials. By this standard, the coalition won the Battle of Iraq last month when Saddam emerged from the "spider hole" near Tikrit. And if that's so, why aren't we bringing the troops home already? Clearly, the Rumsfeld memo's conception of the conflict falls far short of political and strategic reality, not to mention military reality.

(If any of this strikes you as outlandish or unwarranted, you might want to take a moment to review the text of Rumsfeld's memo for yourself. It isn't long.)

These absurd lacunae go a long way toward explaining the minimal interest in postwar planning that has contributed so gravely to our present unhappy circumstances. It's probably immaterial whether Rumsfeld sincerely misapprehends Saddam as a partner of al-Qaida (a case of believing one's own propaganda) or just doesn't care what happens in Iraq once Saddam is out of the way, or both.

(If you doubt it's possible that he doesn't care, remember that all of this comes from the same person who before the start of the war with Iraq allegedly compiled a list of all that could go wrong. It could be that "Stuff Happens" Rumsfeld still doesn't believe that anything worth mentioning has gone wrong. That's certainly how he talks about Iraq in public.)

The most likely scenario is that the inherent difficulty and high risks of managing regime change discouraged senior Administration figures from looking at it too closely, either before or after the President made his inalterable decision to invade. Giving these problems serious consideration beforehand might well have dissuaded the US from marching on Baghdad, as happened in 1991, and as soon as the decision was made, it was too late for doubts. As another Secretary of Defense, Richard Cheney, explained it in a 1991 speech,

There have been significant discussions since the war ended about the proposition of whether or not we went far enough. Should we, perhaps, have gone in to Baghdad? Should we have gotten involved to a greater extent then we did? Did we leave the job in some respects unfinished? I think the answer is a resounding "no."

...I think if we were going to remove Saddam Hussein we would have had to go all the way to Baghdad, we would have to commit a lot of force because I do not believe he would wait in the Presidential Palace for us to arrive. I think we'd have had to hunt him down. And once we'd done that and we'd gotten rid of Saddam Hussein and his government, then we'd have had to put another government in its place.

What kind of government? Should it be a Sunni government or Shi'i government or a Kurdish government or Ba'athist regime? Or maybe we want to bring in some of the Islamic fundamentalists? How long would we have had to stay in Baghdad to keep that government in place? What would happen to the government once U.S. forces withdrew? How many casualties should the United States accept in that effort to try to create clarity and stability in a situation that is inherently unstable?

I think it is vitally important for a President to know when to use military force. I think it is also very important for him to know when not to commit U.S. military force. And it's my view that the President [George H.W. Bush] got it right both times, that it would have been a mistake for us to get bogged down in the quagmire inside Iraq.

A refusal to weigh these same issues in 2002 and 2003 -- issues that apparently did not rate inclusion on Secretary Rumsfeld's comprehensive list -- compounded the disaster that Cheney predicted, the one that afflicts us today.

Despite being proven completely correct, it is conceivable that Cheney either did not believe a word he was saying in defense of the President he was then serving, or was caught up in cognitive dissonance, bigtime. Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf's memoirs hint that Cheney had lobbied for marching on Baghdad in 1991, as has been pointed out elsewhere. Either consistent insincerity or confusion could also explain why Cheney as Vice President completely reversed his earlier stand as Secretary of Defense.

But if we are to take seriously Cheney's public explanation for changing his mind about conquering Iraq -- that 9/11 showed that the U.S. could no longer take any chances by waiting for enemies to attack -- it would lead us to conclude that the Vice President now believes that in order to keep America safe from al-Qaida, even entering a Vietnam-style quagmire in Iraq is appropriate. On March 16, 2003, days before the start of the war, Cheney told NBC's Meet the Press:

Now, if we simply sit back and operate by 20th century standards with respect to national security strategy, in terms of how we're going to deal with this, we say wait until we are hit by an identifiable attack from Iraq, the consequences could be devastating for the United States. We have to be prepared to prevent that from happening. I have argued in the past, and would again, if we had been able to pre-empt the attacks of 9/11 would we have done it? And I think absolutely. I think the American people would have supported it. We have to be prepared now to take the kind of bold action that's being contemplated with respect to Iraq in order to ensure that we don't get hit with a devastating attack when the terrorists' organization gets married up with a rogue state that's willing to provide it with the kinds of deadly capabilities that Saddam Hussein has developed and used over the years.

...Now, I can't say with certainty that there will be no battle for Baghdad. We have to be prepared for that possibility. But, again, I don't want to convey to the American people the idea that this is a cost-free operation. Nobody can say that. I do think there's no doubt about the outcome. There's no question about who is going to prevail if there is military action. And there's no question but what it is going to be cheaper and less costly to do it now than it will be to wait a year or two years or three years until he's developed even more deadly weapons, perhaps nuclear weapons. And the consequences then of having to deal with him would be far more costly than will be the circumstances today. Delay does not help.

As a Secretary of State once said about Iraq in another context, "it's worth it." Not only was it too late for doubts about regime change once the course was set, Cheney is telling us that it just wasn't worth dwelling on -- Saddam and his menacing mushroom clouds absolutely had to be knocked out of action.

As it turns out, nothing is so simple. And no one in Washington honestly can say they weren't warned about the consequences. Dick Cheney laid it all out back in 1991. He was right the first time.


To follow: A non-Rumsfeldian examination of the conditions for victory in Iraq.

"We viewed the people and leaders of South Vietnam in terms of our own experience. We saw in them a thirst for--and a determination to fight for--freedom and democracy. We totally misjudged the political forces within the country."

-Robert S. McNamara, In Retrospect (1995)

The text of the "Rumsfeld memo" as it appeared in USA Today:

October 16, 2003

TO: Gen. Dick Myers
       Paul Wolfowitz
       Gen. Pete Pace
       Doug Feith

FROM: Donald Rumsfeld

SUBJECT: Global War on Terrorism

The questions I posed to combatant commanders this week were: Are we winning or losing the Global War on Terror? Is DoD changing fast enough to deal with the new 21st century security environment? Can a big institution change fast enough? Is the USG changing fast enough?

DoD has been organized, trained and equipped to fight big armies, navies and air forces. It is not possible to change DoD fast enough to successfully fight the global war on terror; an alternative might be to try to fashion a new institution, either within DoD or elsewhere -- one that seamlessly focuses the capabilities of several departments and agencies on this key problem.

With respect to global terrorism, the record since Septermber 11th seems to be:

We are having mixed results with Al Qaida, although we have put considerable pressure on them -- nonetheless, a great many remain at large.

USG has made reasonable progress in capturing or killing the top 55 Iraqis.

USG has made somewhat slower progress tracking down the Taliban -- Omar, Hekmatyar, etc.

With respect to the Ansar Al-Islam, we are just getting started.

Have we fashioned the right mix of rewards, amnesty, protection and confidence in the US?

Does DoD need to think through new ways to organize, train, equip and focus to deal with the global war on terror?

Are the changes we have and are making too modest and incremental? My impression is that we have not yet made truly bold moves, although we have have made many sensible, logical moves in the right direction, but are they enough?

Today, we lack metrics to know if we are winning or losing the global war on terror. Are we capturing, killing or deterring and dissuading more terrorists every day than the madrassas and the radical clerics are recruiting, training and deploying against us?

Does the US need to fashion a broad, integrated plan to stop the next generation of terrorists? The US is putting relatively little effort into a long-range plan, but we are putting a great deal of effort into trying to stop terrorists. The cost-benefit ratio is against us! Our cost is billions against the terrorists' costs of millions.

Do we need a new organization?

How do we stop those who are financing the radical madrassa schools?

Is our current situation such that "the harder we work, the behinder we get"?

It is pretty clear that the coalition can win in Afghanistan and Iraq in one way or another, but it will be a long, hard slog.

Does CIA need a new finding?

Should we create a private foundation to entice radical madradssas to a more moderate course?

What else should we be considering?

Please be prepared to discuss this at our meeting on Saturday or Monday.


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Original text copyright by the author and MidEastWeb for Coexistence, RA. Posted at MidEastWeb Middle East Web Log at http://www.mideastweb.org/log/archives/00000149.htm where your intelligent and constructive comments are welcome. Distributed by MEW Newslist. Subscribe by e-mail to mew-subscribe@yahoogroups.com. Please forward by email with this notice and link to and cite this article. Other uses by permission.

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