Viewpoint: Rumsfeld May Share McNamara's Fate

History doesn't repeat itself, Mark Twain observed, but it does tend to rhyme. The death of Robert McNamara this week has brought inevitable comparisons between "the architect of the Vietnam War" and Donald Rumsfeld, the "architect" of another war that has become unpopular.

Actually, the Vietnam War and the invasion of Iraq share little in common either in scale or purpose. Vietnam cost 58,000 American lives, perhaps 4 million Vietnamese, and ended in humiliating defeat. The Iraq expedition has cost, so far, 4,300 American lives; the great majority of the perhaps 150,000 to 200,000 Iraqi deaths have been at the hands of other Iraqis; and the outcome may yet be a messy success. The U.S. intervention in Vietnam was to prop up South Vietnam against aggression by the North. The invasion of Iraq was to achieve . . . what ?

Answering that question reveals what I've come to believe is the true and deeply ironic link between McNamara and Rumsfeld. In his handling of the invasion of Iraq and its aftermath, Rumsfeld was motivated by one overarching desire: to prevent a rerun of Vietnam. When historians come to disentangle the debacle of the Bush administration's handling of Iraq, that has to be one of their starting points. Because it leads to a wholesale rethinking of the conventional wisdom about what happened.

When Rumsfeld came to the Pentagon in 1975 for his first stint as defense secretary, the United States and its military were reeling from Vietnam. Back in those Cold War days, the U.S. military was supposedly sized to handle "two and a half wars" simultaneously. Vietnam was seen as a "half war." But a decade of grinding conflict there swallowed the U.S. Army and came close to destroying it. Why? Libraries are filled with efforts to explain what went wrong. Rumsfeld himself, I think, took away three lessons. First, the U.S. Army in Vietnam was asked to win by military means a settlement that, in reality, could be achieved only by politics. Second, the U.S. brass never grasped this—neither the Army commanders nor the Joint Chiefs. Every setback in Vietnam caused no military rethinking of strategy, merely repeated calls for more troops. Most fundamentally, the whole expedition was misbegotten. America neither knew nor understood Vietnamese society; to believe the United States could remake Vietnam's political future to American liking was hubris.

A generation later, President Bush never actually asked Rumsfeld—or Colin Powell, his secretary of state—whether they agreed with his decision to overthrow Saddam. Had he been asked, though, Rumsfeld would have approved. He saw 9/11 as a watershed. America needed to act to deter Arab regimes from covertly supporting Al Qaeda—in the worst case, supplying Osama bin Laden with a nuclear weapon. Saddam was "the low-hanging fruit," as Rumsfeld's policy counselor, Douglas Feith, later put it to me. (Feith says now I must have misunderstood him; that, he says, was the reverse of his view.)

But Saddam's overthrow was essentially all that Rumsfeld thought the United States could prudently attempt. "Don was very clear about the limits of U.S. power," one of his closest colleagues said later. "All we could do in Iraq was to go in, overthrow Saddam, remove or destroy his WMD, and get out. Everything after that would be up to the Iraqis." Rumsfeld, in other words, remained the cautious Midwestern Republican of his generation: willing to exert U.S. power, but deeply skeptical of America's ability to remake the world. He had little patience with the dreams of neocons like his deputy, Paul Wolfowitz, who thought that the overthrow of Saddam would enable Washington to establish a democracy in Iraq, which in turn would catalyze democratic revolutions throughout the Arab world. "Don thought that was unknowable at best, and improbable the rest of the time," said another of his closest aides.

Rumsfeld's own view remained fixed—as his oldest friend in the Pentagon, then-Air Force secretary James Roche, bears witness. Roche and Rumsfeld shared Chicago roots and Washington ties going back 30 years. Within the Pentagon, Roche was viewed with some awe as one of the few who could answer back to Rumsfeld. In fall 2002, Roche went with a colleague to see Rumsfeld to voice their fears about U.S. intervention in Iraq. "Don, you do realize Iraq could be another Vietnam," Roche said. Rumsfeld appeared outraged. "Vietnam? Do you think you have to tell me about Vietnam?" he said. "Of course it won't be another Vietnam. We are going to go in, overthrow Saddam, and get out. That's it." (Rumsfeld, who is writing his memoirs, declined to comment on Roche's account.)

But Rumsfeld, conscious of the support the neocons had in the White House, allowed Wolfowitz to continue planning a more expansive democracy-building mission. This led to jarring collisions. Just before the March 2003 invasion, a group of think-tank commentariat were summoned to the Pentagon for an off-the-record preview of the administration's plans. The first 40 minutes were consumed, those present recall, by Wolfowitz's staffers laying out a grand scheme to bring democracy to Iraq. Then Rumsfeld breezed in. "Forget everything you've just heard," he said. "We're going to go in, overthrow Saddam, remove his WMD, and get out." The commentariat departed, bewildered.

Rumsfeld's determination—no more Vietnams—is the primary reason why there was no planning for "phase four," the aftermath of the invasion. (Another reason is that Rumsfeld's insistent interventions brought chaos to Army planning.) Rumsfeld and the U.S. commander, Gen. Tommy Franks, were clear. There wasn't going to be a phase four, because the Iraqis were going to continue running the place. The goal was "regime implosion": Condoleezza Rice, Bush's national-security adviser, reiterated this to the British ambassador, Christopher Meyer, only weeks before the invasion. That explains Rumsfeld's obsession with getting to Baghdad fast. "Speed was such an important component of the war plan because . . . we were looking to decapitate the regime and do it fast," one of Rumsfeld's aides said. The Iraqi Army was seen as central to this, as the aide explained: "If we can get the regime to collapse, we'd have the Iraqis' own security forces in place, and now it's a matter of providing a new government. It was more than a hope. It was a reasoned assumption that, if we can do it fast, the Iraqi Army would remain in being."

The reasoned assumption proved to be wrong, of course. Iraqi society collapsed, and with it the Army. The first of the charges against Rumsfeld is that he never responded to this chaos by sending enough U.S. troops to fill the security vacuum. Instead, he pressed ahead with his effort to hand power to some—any—new set of Iraqis as swiftly as possible. (At Rumsfeld's urging, Bush had given the Pentagon responsibility for postwar Iraq.) The mission Rumsfeld gave to Lt. Gen. Jay Garner—the first postinvasion civilian administrator in Iraq—was to cobble together some provisional Iraqi government. Convening versions of the Loya Jirgas that had worked well enough in Afghanistan, Garner was making good progress, though it was always clear that the minority Sunnis would remain the dominant faction.

Then President Bush dropped his bombshell. He sent Paul Bremer to Iraq with the mission of building a democratic society from scratch. In effect, Bush decreed a political revolution in Iraq—taking power from the ruling Sunnis and giving it to the despised Shia. It was never likely the Sunnis would accept this passively. Whether Bush realized it or not, a civil war was inevitable.

The real case against Rumsfeld, I think, is that he neither fought against nor adjusted to this new policy of his president. He accepted it publicly. But it was the antithesis of everything Rumsfeld believed Vietnam had taught about the limits of American power. So, in his subsequent decisions about Iraq, Rumsfeld continued in his determination to preserve the Army from a rerun of Vietnam. No, the commanders in Iraq shouldn't even ask for more troops. No, the Army wouldn't comply with Bremer's demands that it intervene against, for example, the firebrand Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr. More troops were not the answer; nor could military power substitute for political negotiation.

From mid-2003 to Rumsfeld's departure at the end of 2006, then, administration policy in Iraq was broken-backed. The president had decreed a goal that demanded far more troops, playing a far more interventionist role, than his defense secretary was willing to implement. Primary blame for what ensued rests, of course, with President Bush, who never brought order to his dysfunctional national-security apparatus. But Rumsfeld must take his considerable share. Alone among Bush's appointees, Rumsfeld had the clout to force Bush to realize what he had set in motion, and to organize a coherent set of policies to achieve this. Rumsfeld's failure was that he did not. It's an ironic epitaph on Rumsfeld's handling of Iraq that—intent on avoiding the mistakes of Robert McNamara—he was ultimately guilty of the failure for which McNamara afterward so blamed himself: not telling truth to power.