The question is not whether Donald Rumsfeld should resign. The question is not even who should replace him. The question is: What goals would a new Secretary of Defense set, and what strategies would he implement to achieve them?
If Rumsfeld's critics believe America's military has met its match on the battlefields of Iraq, they should say so forthrightly. But they should talk, too, about the ramifications of an American defeat in the heart of the Arab Middle East.
For example, once al-Qaeda can creditably claim to have driven U.S. forces out of Iraq, is there any reason to believe the line will be held in Afghanistan? And what responses should we expect elsewhere in the region after such an American humiliation?
If, on the other hand, the critics believe we can and should prevail in Iraq, but that Rumsfeld is fighting Abu Musab al-Zarqawi's suicide bombers and the remnants of Saddam Hussein's regime incorrectly, let them outline a better approach. Last fall, Andrew F. Krepinevich, Jr., writing in Foreign Policy, did not demand Rumsfeld's head, accuse him of “arrogance” or not being a good listener. He did deliver a blistering critique of what he called a “faltering effort.” But the headline of his article was “How to Win in Iraq” and he offered a coherent strategic alternative.
The question also is not whether Donald Rumsfeld has made mistakes. The question is: What has he learned from his mistakes?
The high-tech, big-blast bombs dropped on Baghdad early in the conflict did not “shock and awe” our enemies as Rumsfeld presumably anticipated. By contrast, the low-tech videotapes of hostages having their heads sawed off did cause something like that reaction in millions of American and European viewers.
There probably should have been more “boots on the ground” following Saddam's toppling, especially since Ambassador Paul Bremer would soon disband the Iraqi army leaving no one to maintain order. But that's history. Who would propose bringing in more troops now? The focus needs to be on the battles being fought today and the battles to be fought tomorrow. (Actually, American forces have never lost a battle in Iraq. Why that doesn't count as winning in this war I'll leave for a future column.)
Rumsfeld is hardly alone in having made mistakes. For more than a quarter century, almost all Western leaders and “experts” blundered badly by underestimating the enemy we now face: his determination, his ruthlessness and, yes, his competence. Worse than that: Many have been slow to recognize that Militant Islamism is the enemy, as serious a threat as were Nazism and Communism in their day.
It has long been observed that generals prepare to fight the last war rather than the next war. Part of the explanation: They know more about the last war than they do about the next war.
In the years since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Pentagon under various secretaries spent little energy preparing to fight the kind of low-intensity conflict now underway in Iraq and Afghanistan. There are many generals who don't want to fight wars that rely not on nuclear submarines and stealth bombers but on hard men willing to bloody their hands on the mean streets of cities like Fallujah and Ramadi.
Rumsfeld is the only secretary of defense to have prepared for the job by serving as secretary of defense. Thirty years ago, when he was the youngest man ever to hold the job, he was probably a less difficult boss. This time around, his goal has been to fundamentally transform what he sees as a sclerotic Pentagon bureaucracy. That has not made him popular with those invested in the status quo.
A separate question – one well worth asking – is whether a Pentagon reshaped by Rumsfeld will be all that it can be; whether it will be capable of employing organized violence more effectively than America's adversaries (which is, after all, the mission).
Transforming the military so it can better fight 21st century wars while simultaneously fighting the first 21st century war is a tall order, akin, some would say, to repairing an F-16 during aerial combat. But that's the challenge Rumsfeld has undertaken. A military designed and equipped only to fight yesterday's foes is of limited value.
Retired generals should be welcomed into the debate on military transformation. But they can't make much of a contribution until and unless they start asking the right questions.