Dick Cheney and Don Rumsfeld in their
Ford Administration days
The retired generals (presumably, as is typical in U.S. public life, speaking on behalf of those still on active duty, since they can’t speak for themselves) who have — in a political sense — dumped Donald Rumsfeld’s body on the White House lawn, are not men prone to launching offensives on the impulse of vengeance or any other whim. They have spent years in military academies and on battlefields learning the art of picking their battles with a view to advancing an overall strategy, with their targets and their timing always chosen not simply with the optimal conditions for winning a particular engagement in mind, but also with an overriding sense of how that particular engagement advances the overall aims of the war. (Trust me, it’s there in Clausewitz’s definitions of strategy and tactics; I never kept the page reference.)
While we may all enjoy the spectacle of the most stupendously arrogant member of Bush’s cabinet being taken down by those entrusted with defending America — even as a couple of generals he appointed rush to his defense, along with President Bush (“You’re doing a heck of a job, Rummy…”), we still need to ask why this is happening, and why now.
After all, the egregious errors of which Rumsfeld is being accused were made in 2003, and America has chafed under the burden in blood and treasure that the Iraq misadventure has cost for at least the past two years. So why have the military men chosen this moment to break their silence? And, for that matter, why have they chosen Rummy as their target?
While they accuse the Defense Secretary of resisting sound military advice and authoring spectacular tactical errors, it’s long been pretty obvious that the military brass regarded invading Iraq as a colossal strategic error even before the tactical mistakes came into play. It was the likes of former Marine commander Anthony Zinni who warned that taking down Saddam’s regime was a bad idea because it would produce precisely the sectarian equation we see today. And when members of the top brass, such as Shinseki, told the Pentagon civilian leadership that they’d need at least 300,000 or more troops to pacify Iraq, this was not simply because they believed it was true, but also because they believed that these numbers would render invading Iraq politically prohibitive for the Bush administration. And for the same reason, the war’s most fervent advocates, such as Paul Wolfowitz, shot down those estimates withouth even seriously contemplating them — they were seen as an attempt to delay or even cancel the march to war.
So, again, why Rummy, and why now?
Rumsfeld is, in some ways, low hanging fruit for the generals. After all, he’s the civilian political appointee who translates administration policy into the military, and as such is the obvious target of a backlash by the uniformed professional military against the administration. If the generals were going on Sunday talk shows calling for President Bush to resign, they’d be deemed to be part of a coup. The generals’ grievances over Iraq, and the no-win situation in which it has placed the U.S. military (and the epic weakening of the U.S. strategic position more generally it has occasioned) obviously extends to President Bush, Vice President Cheney and others. But to avoid appearing insubordinate, the generals are couching their criticism in terms of policy choices made in the Pentagon, their immediate overseers. (In corporate culture, disgruntled employees are permitted to complain to Human Resources about their immediate managers, but nobody in the company is going to hear out any complaints they may have about the strategic choices made by the CEO — thus the generals targeting Rumsfeld, rather than Bush.)
But Rumsfeld represents far more than a manager to the generals; he’s widely viewed along with Cheney as one of the key architects of a relentlessly hawkish policy, or set of policies, that has placed the military in a quagmire in Iraq and weakened its ability to deal with a number of other challenges. It’s not just Rummy the cost-cutting technocrat who is drawing the fire of the generals, but Rummy the Strangelovish champion of a “forward-leaning strategy of freedom.”
And the timing, of course, is everything.
There’s no obvious reason by the logic of the current situation in Iraq, or decisions that may be made shortly, for the generals to choose this moment to launch their offensive. They all believe that the U.S. needs to remain in Iraq as long as it takes to stabilize it in some way (although they may well differ with the administration on what that might involve).
But given what Seymour Hersh’s sources in the military and intelligence communities are telling him about plans for military action against Iran, there’s certainly a clear motive for those seeking to save the U.S. military from further calamitous misadventures to pick a very public battle with the administration over its handling of strategic matters.
Having watched the Iraq debacle take shape in no small part because those from the military establishment in a position to do so (think Colin Powell) failed to publicly challenge what they could see was a disaster in the making, the generals are clearly inclined to act preemptively this time. And given the diverse range of pressures and variables in the Iran equation, they also know that an attack on Iran is not a done deal, and can be prevented.
Smart military minds know that invading and occupying Iran is simply not an option (it has three times the size and population of Iraq, where a substantial portion of the U.S. military’s combat units remain embroiled), and also that simply bombing Iran’s nuclear facilities — those that are known, at least — is unlikely to deter Iran from seeking nuclear weapons. Indeed, it is more likely to spur them to accelerate their efforts. (If the Israeli air strike on Iraq’s Osirak reactor in 1981 is the model of preemptive action, then its limits should be made abundantly clear by the fact that ten years later, the IAEA found Iraq far more advanced in its covert bomb program than anyone had thought possible.)
Despite the insistence of the same talk-TV zealots in the pre-Iraq days that a bit of shock and awe would presage the collapse of the mullahs, the military also knows that attacking Iran would almost certainly shore up the power of the regime, and tilt most debates in favor of its most hardline element. And the likely response from Iran, both in terms of direct strikes on U.S. personnel stationed in Iraq, as well as proxy terror strikes throughout the region — and also the likelihood that such an attack would crank up the hostility of Iraq’s Shiite majority to the U.S. presence — would imperil U.S. strategic interests across a wide front. And that, in turn, would force the U.S. to escalate its own response, opening a new war of attrition even if the original intention was simply to destroy particular Iranian assets.
While the arm-chair warriors of the Rumsfeld stripe pursue regime change through the Che Guevara type foco model — blow up a few things, and the masses will rise — the military would in all likelihood side with the grownups in the intel and diplomatic community who believe President Bush is making an adolescent blunder in simply refusing to talk to Iran because he doesn’t deem it a legitimate regime when that regime is offering a dialogue designed to address all issues of U.S. concern.
So why go after Rummy if the goal is to stop another bout of reckless adventurism for which the men and women in uniform pay the price? Well, it’s a key battle in pursuit of that goal, because by publicly challenging Rummy’s handling of Iraq, the generals send a none-too-subtle signal to the U.S. public, in an election year, that the Bush administration is strategically incompetent. And that would make it harder for Messrs. Cheney and Rumsfeld and co. to open a second front in Iran.