President Bush has just confirmed that, after a series of conversations, he and Defense Secretary Don Rumsfeld have agreed "that it is time for new leadership at the Pentagon." Mr. Bush also announced that former CIA Director Robert Gates will be his nominee to succeed Rumsfeld. More on Mr. Gates in a moment.
Despite yesterday's Democratic victory, and demands for a "new course" in Iraq, I am disappointed by today's announcement, or perhaps more correctly, the timing of the move. Don Rumsfeld has been a loyal administration soldier for almost six years, trying to manage the War on Terror and the transformation of the U.S. military, Herculean tasks that would be difficult under any circumstances. Attempting to both--simultaneously--is unprecedented in our military history.
And I cannot over-emphasize the difficulty of those tasks. Clearly, there are problems in Iraq, and those difficulties ultimately led to Mr. Rumsfeld's departure. But there have also been successes in the War on Terror, namely the liberation of more than 50 million people in Iraq and Afghanistan, and untold victories that we may never know of. Such victories are accomplished by a special forces team that takes out a high-value target in the back alleys of Baghdad, or an NSA analyst who identifies--and prevents--a money transfer to an Al Qaida cell preparing an attack in the Middle East, or here in our homeland. Prevailing in these small and seemingly unrelated events is how the War on Terror will eventually be won, and Mr. Rumsfeld deserves some of the credit for those successes. Marshaling our forces to fight this war was an exceptionally difficult job, and Rumsfeld should be commended for re-orienting our military to fight a long war against Islamofacism.
In summarizing Rumsfeld's performance, it's also worth remembering that Defense Secretaries fight wars with military forces that are largely shaped, trained and equipped by the predecessors. Today, we have an Army with only 37 active duty combat brigades, a result of cutbacks endorsed by Bill Cohen, William Perry, Les Aspin and even Dick Cheney. Ditto for the military brass that warned we would need 350,000 troops to secure Iraq. They offered those warnings with the full knowledge that troop cuts they had previously supported--or failed to prevent--would make such force levels an impossibility. Yet, critics who assailed Rumsfeld for "insufficient" force levels in Iraq conveniently ignore the fact that our current combat structure was heavily influenced by decisions made a decade ago--or longer.
Rumsfeld is not without blame in the War in Iraq, but full responsibility for mistakes made there are not his alone. When the full story of the Iraq War is finally written, honest historians (assuming there are any left) will note that the outcome was influenced by events that occurred well before the U.S.-led invasion in 2003.
If Mr. Rumsfeld deserves partial credit for successes in the War on Terror, he should also be commended for his efforts to reshape the U.S. military. When Rumsfeld returned to the Pentagon in January 2001, he inherited a military that was largely unprepared for the challenges of global terrorism and information warfare. He also found that the armed services had been "under-capitalized" for more than a decade, saddled with aging fleets of aircraft, ships, and other combat hardware.
Responding to those critical concerns, Mr. Rumsfeld worked long and hard to improve the capabilities of special forces units, military intelligence organizations, and the ability of U.S. forces to operate on a digital battlefield. He also fought for larger Pentagon budgets, allowing some elements of the military (most notably, the U.S Air Force) to begin overdue recapitalization efforts, and invest in badly needed equipment upgrades. Successful completion of these modernization efforts--while hardly assured--may ultimately be Mr. Rumsfeld's most enduring legacy in his second tour as defense chief.
As for the timing of today's announcement, it smacks of a White House in full panic mode, anxious to court favor with the new Democratic majority. It's a fool's errand, as Mr. Bush and his advisors will soon discover. Throwing Rumsfeld under the bus won't produce a sudden "new course in Iraq" (unless, of course, you're talking about a cut-and-run strategy), and it certainly won't stem the expected flood of Congressional "investigations" on pre-war intelligence, Haliburton, body armor for troops and anything else Nancy Pelosi can think of to embarrass the Bush Administration.
Don Rumsfeld--and the U.S. military--deserve better that today's ill-timed departure announcement and a few, pat words of praise at a White House news conference.
Regarding Mr. Gates, he is a good man but the wrong one for the job. He spent most of his professional life at the CIA before retiring and becoming the President of Texas A&M University. Robert Gates certainly knows the intelligence end of military affairs, but his expertise ends there. Moreover, his management skills as DCI weren't particularly impressive, and as an analyst, he was part of a CIA team that consistently got it wrong on their assessments of the former Soviet Union. Dr. Gates is a very bright man and strikes me as a shoo-in confirmation, someone with no ties to the current Pentagon regime. That's probably a necessity in today's political climate, but that doesn't make him the right choice for DoD.