Rumsfeld and the American Way of War
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.
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 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.
"Shock and Awe"
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
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
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.
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.
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."
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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." The American way of war is technology
intensive, firepower focused, logistically superior but politically
and culturally ignorant to the point of being pathetic.
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.
Kolko is the author, among other works, of Century
of War: Politics, Conflicts and Society Since 1914, Another
Century of War?, and Anatomy
of a War: Vietnam, the United States and the Modern Historical Experience.
His latest book is The
Age of War.
© 2006 Gabriel Kolko