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Ivan Eland: Rumsfeld’s Muddy Quagmire

Rumsfeld’s Muddy Quagmire

By Ivan Eland*
December 6, 2004

Triumphant after his ''mandate'' from the people, President Bush, to date, has announced the retirement of eight cabinet members. Although many of these government officials were lackluster at best, the cabinet’s worst performer is still in his seat. Donald Rumsfeld should have been the first cabinet officer fired, but the unflappable Secretary of Defense has been asked back for a return engagement in Bush’s second term.

The secret to Rumsfeld’s “success” (in Washington, a bureaucrat’s first goal is to survive turmoil)—like that of John F. Kennedy or Ronald Reagan—is not competence or contribution, but charisma.

During the first seven months of the Bush administration, speculation swirled around Washington that Rumsfeld would be the first cabinet member to be ousted. Although initially, Rumsfeld had developed a military transformation program that had some merit, he had been incompetent in his dealings with Congress and even his own generals. Everybody in the capital seemingly wanted Rumsfeld’s head.

Then 9/11 saved the secretary’s political life. As actor Jack Palance once said, “Confidence is sexy.” And Rumsfeld proved it so by using his supreme self-assurance to make the media swoon during that national hour of crisis. The press even forgave Rumsfeld’s occasionally prickly disposition.

Rumsfeld’s aplomb has continued even in the face of the disastrous U.S. military excursion into Iraq—a misadventure that should be laid at the feet of the Pentagon. Rumsfeld and his deputy, Paul Wolfowitz—along with Vice President Cheney—convinced an inexperienced president that knocking off Saddam and replacing him with a friendly, democratic regime would be child’s play. Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz, and Cheney arrogantly made the classic error of the strong: underestimating the adversary. They believed that U.S. forces would be greeted by Iraqis as liberators rather than as conquerors and failed to anticipate the apparently pre-planned and clever guerrilla mode of resistance. Elements of the Iraqi leadership knew that they stood little chance in a toe-to-toe slugfest with the most powerful military the world has ever known. Instead, they decided to use the most successful method of warfare in history—hit and run guerrilla tactics that would make the leviathan grow tired and go home.

Ignoring the real possibility of post-invasion guerrilla war and attempting to demonstrate his vision of future warfare—which marginalized ground power and emphasized air power and electronics—Rumsfeld ridiculed the chief Army general’s admonition that hundreds of thousands of soldiers would be needed to successfully occupy and administer Iraq. Sometimes politicos should follow the advice of experts. The U.S. military has never had enough troops in Iraq to carry out its ludicrously ambitious goals there.

Furthermore, during the early stages of the occupation, the Pentagon, then in charge of that effort, foolishly disbanded the Iraqi security forces and refused to allow Baath party members to help govern the country even temporarily. These policies ignored the lessons learned in the occupation of Germany after World War II. After that conflict, the United States had to rely on some undesirable German officials with special expertise to help pick up the pieces of the shattered nation. And not only did purges in Iraq cut off the U.S. occupation from local expertise, many of those disgruntled Iraqi officials are now using those skills against the United States. The United States has had to reconstruct the Iraqi security forces from the ground up. The new Iraqi forces have proven themselves to be unreliable, incompetent, and sometimes in bed with the guerrillas.

Also, Rumsfeld has endorsed the use of heavy-handed military tactics that have alienated the Iraqi people—a critical mistake in counterinsurgency warfare. For example, although the British—with much experience in fighting urban guerrillas in Northern Ireland—have advised the U.S. military to restrain its aggressive mode of operation, U.S. forces unwisely used heavy firepower to level the city of Falluja. The city had become a symbol of resistance to an occupying foreign power and destroying it may very well prove to be a rallying point for the guerrillas. In short, prospects for a successful U.S. counterinsurgency campaign in Iraq appear to be bleak.

Finally, Rumsfeld, at the very least, created a climate of disdain in the U.S. military for the Geneva Conventions on the treatment of prisoners. This climate led to the un-American torture and degradation of prisoners at Abu Ghraib and other military prisons. Even if these unconscionable instances were excesses and not a secret Pentagon policy to coerce desperately needed intelligence out of prisoners, Rumsfeld’s execution of an unneeded invasion of a sovereign nation requires him to take full moral responsibility for them.

Ironically, President Bush’s seeming reluctance to fire Rumsfeld indicates how badly the war is going. If the president fired Rumsfeld, an American public that slumbered through the election might finally realize the true dismal state of the war. Instead, like a deer caught in the headlights, Bush naively and unwisely believes that by retaining the charismatic face of his Iraq policy, he can hide his and Rumsfeld’s failure long enough to figure out what to do. Instead, he should fire Rumsfeld and hire someone who can begin to extricate the United States from this muddy quagmire.


*Ivan Eland is Senior Fellow and Director of the Center on Peace & Liberty at The Independent Institute in Oakland, CA., and author of the book, Putting “Defense” Back into U.S. Defense Policy: Rethinking U.S. Security in the Post-Cold War World. For further articles and studies, see the War on Terrorism and

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