On kicking Donald Rumsfeld

Yesterday was kick Donald Rumsfeld day for Senate Democrats, as they argued in favor of their resolution calling on President Bush to replace the Secretary of Defense. Let’s take the occasion to consider how well Rumsfeld has performed. In doing so, I will focus solely on our military efforts in Afghanistan and Iraq. Rumsfeld’s efforts at long-term change in the way the military operates should also be part of the equation, but I lack the expertise to comment on them. Instead, I will consider how things have gone in Afghanistan and Iraq, and how they likely would have gone if Rumsfeld had made different decisions.

Our first major military action of the Bush administration was the war in Afghanistan. Many predicted that this war would be tough-going, considering that country’s long history of successful resistance to foreign forces, especially the Soviet Union. However, the Taliban was overthrown with ease. Recently, a mini-insurgency, spearheaded by Taliban remnants and new recruits as well as drug lords and other criminals, has broken out. NATO forces and the government (which is fairly weak and corrupt) appear to be having problems subduing this mini-insurgency in some areas. But this has nothing to do with Rumsfeld.

The next major military operation was the invasion of Iraq. Many predicted that toppling Saddam Hussein would cost the lives of thousands of American troops. But despite Turkey’s unwillingness to allow an invasion from the north, our forces routed Saddam’s military in a brilliant campaign, and the regime was overthrown at the cost of only a few hundred American lives.

Soon thereafter, the Sunni insurgency, aided by al-Qaeda, broke out. Our military was slow to adapt to this insurgency. Eventually, though, we gained the upper hand. In the process we killed hundreds of al-Qaeda terrorists, including Zarqawi. In early 2005, Sunni participation in elections was far from robust. But later that year, with the wind being taken out of the insurgency, Sunnis participated en masse in elections. The insurgency thus had failed in its mission, just as Zarqawi had lamented it would.

But meanwhile major sectarian violence broke out, presenting the threat that Iraq would descend into civil war. Though once again a bit slow off the mark, our military command eventually responded by re-deploying troops to Baghdad, the focal point of the violence. Though it’s too early to say whether this strategy will work, the early returns are positive — casualties in August were one third of what they were in July.

In sum, our military ousted both the Taliban and Saddam Hussein, helped create the conditions under which Iraq could institute a constitutional form of government, and caused the Sunni/al Qaeda insurgency to fail. And it accomplished all of this at a cost of about 3,000 American lives. Yet, along the way we made some mistakes, and it is now unclear whether the ongoing sectarian violence will undo much of what we have achieved.

The next question is whether, had Rumsfeld made different decisions that he reasonably could have been expected to make, things would have gone substantially better. That’s the case the Senate Democrats tried to make yesterday when Senator Durbin claimed that Rumsfeld not only ignored advice that he needed more troops in Iraq, but also forced out the general who offered that advice, General Shinseki.

Durbin is playing fast-and-loose with the facts here. In reality, Shinseki wasn’t fired or “retired” early; he retired from the Army after serving out his full term. Moreover, Rumsfeld announced that Shinseki would depart as scheduled before the General made his statement about how many troops would be needed in Iraq. But Shinseki did advise that we needed more troops and Rumsfeld demurred. What of that decision?

First, it is clear that we did not need more troops to topple Saddam. Second, it is not clear that more troops would have prevented the Sunni/al Qaeda insurgency, as opposed to merely delaying it. Suppose we had sent in so many troops that the insurgents were unable to mount a serious resistance. In that scenario, it’s doubtful that we would have kept (say) 300,000 troops in Iraq to deal with a non-insurgency. But as our troops withdrew, the insurgency likely would have emerged for the same reasons it did in real life. Even so, one can fairly criticize Rumsfeld for not neutralizing the insurgency sooner either by sending in more troops as it became more deadly (something the Democrats never advocated) or by adapting more quickly. Whether the fact that Rusmfeld’s performance at this juncture was less than optimal justifies his removal, given our eventual success in causing the insurgency to fail, is another matter.

Finally, would more troops help curb the main problem we face today — sectarian violence. The answer appears to be yes. Sending more troops into Baghdad seems to have helped, but it may leave us less able to stem sectarian violence elsewhere, and sending yet more troops into Baghdad might further limit the violence there. But if the Democrats want to make this criticism, they should be advocating that we send in more troops now. This, of course, they are not doing. Rather, they are pushing for a troop reduction. And they are contributing to a political climate in which the president is unlikely to send in more troops even if Rumsfeld urges him to (which, for all I know, he may be doing).

Thus, if anyone deserves a censure resolution or a vote of no-confidence, it is the Senate Democrats, not the Secretary of Defense.

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