Robert McNamara and Donald Rumsfeld — compare and contrast

The death of Robert McNamara serves as George Will’s springboard to reflect on contemporary neo-conservativism. Will reminds us that neo-conservatism began, in significant part, as a reaction to the immodest stance of McNamara and others that social science can tell us with precision how we should proceed. He finds, however, that today’s neo-conservatism has much in common with McNamara’s stance. Will writes:

The world McNamara has departed could soon be convulsed by attempts to modify Iran’s behavior. Since a variety of incentives have been unavailing, more muscular measures — perhaps “surgical strikes,” a phrase redolent of the McNamara mentality — are contemplated.

Some persons fault the president for not having more ambitious plans to prompt and guide Iranians toward regime change. That outcome is sometimes advocated, and its consequences confidently anticipated, by neoconservatives whose certitude about feasibility resembles that which, decades ago, neoconservatism was born to counter.

But strikes against Iran’s nuclear facilities would not be attempts at behavior modification; they would be efforts to eliminate a capability that permits ceratin behavior. And one can advocate ambitious plans to promote regime change without having great certitude about the consequences. Will could just as easily accuse those with less ambitious plans, or none at all, of having great certitude that a nuclear Iran will behave rationally, like the Soviet Union did. Robert McNamara was a big believer in rationality.

Will’s piece is thought-provoking, in any event, and it provoked me to compare McNamara and Donald Rumsfeld who, though not a neo-conservative, is sometimes considered a “fellow traveler.” The similarities seem obvious: both achieved extraordinary things at an early age (though Rumsfeld was far more seasoned and accomplished than McNamara when he became Secretary of Defense for the second time); both were sticklers for data and precision; both came to the Pentagon brimming with ideas for reform and modernization of the military; both met resistance from the military; both had their tenure defined not by the reforms they wanted to implement but by an unanticipated war against rag-tag opposition that went badly; both left the Pentagon following lack of military success; both wars went better after they departed.

There are important differences too. For example, under McNamara, U.S. troop levels in Vietnam kept increasing. By contrast, Rumsfeld wanted a small U.S. “footprint” in Iraq, and he apparently rejected calls for more troops.

As I noted here, Michael Lind argues that the U.S. blundered in Vietnam under McNamara by overcommitting U.S. troops to what was essentially a guerrilla war, at least until 1968 when McNamara left the Pentagon. This resulted in a level of American casualties that badly undermined domestic support for the war. Rumsfeld, many have argued, blundered by not sending enough troops to Iraq.

In insisting on a small U.S. footprint in Iraq, I don’t believe Rumsfeld cited the need to keep U.S. casualties low, Rather his focus was on trying to prevent the U.S. from being perceived as an occupying force, on making sure that Iraqis were invested in promoting stability, and on creating conditions whereby they ultimately could stand on their own.

But Rumsfeld may also have been motivated by a desire to keep the U.S. death count low. If so, he succeeded, at least as compared to Vietnam. But the war still lost public support to the point that there was great pressure to accept defeat, as in Vietnam. Fortunately the administration resisted that pressure.

With a bigger footprint, we would have lost more American lives which, other things being equal, would have eroded support more quickly, perhaps precluding the “surge.” But with a bigger footprint, we might have succeeded much earlier, thereby maintaining domestic support all along and precluding the need for a surge.

Meanwhile, we seem to have been viewed as an occupying force notwithstanding Rumsfeld’s attempt to leave a small footprint. Yet we maintained enough credibility for the Sunnis ultimately to cooperate with us and indeed to take the lead in expelling al Qaeda from Anbar province and beyond.

George Will is right about this much — consequences should not confidently be anticipated.

UPDATE: There are other differences between McNamara and Rumsfeld, of course. The most important is that McNamara was an abject failure in office and Rumsfeld was not. Under Rumsfeld, our military liberated two nations and both remain liberated, though troubled. Under McNamara, we lost ground and moved well down the path towards losing a war.


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