2003 April 24 Thursday
Mickey Kaus On The Unified Rumsfeld Critique

Mickey Kaus distills down the core argument for what was wrong with the way the United States fought the war in Iraq. (additional arguments in Mickey's Tuesday post)

​​P.P.S.: There'a Unified Rumsfeld Critique emerging, which is that he waged the war well, as a war, but made mistakes when it came to winning the war in a way that would allow us to win the peace. Count #1 in this indictment is his failure to provide enough boots on the ground to provide order immediately following a military victory. Count #2 is his failure to read the memo from Garner's office and give priority to protecting Islamic cultural treasures. ... In Rumsfeld's defense, it can be said that a) he clearly tried to wage the war as humanely as possible, precisely for these long-range political and strategic reasons, and b) he made nine right decisions for every wrong decision. On the other hand, if you advocate a war policy that requires you to get 10 out of 10 things right if it's going to work -- i.e. if it's not going to produce more terrorism than it stops -- than you can properly be faulted if you only bat a brilliant .900. ... Rumsfeld should admit the mistakes instead of continuing to make weak don't-look-at-me-I'm-not-responsible excuses ("Think what's happened in our cities when we've had riots, and problems, and looting. Stuff happens!"). ...​​​​​

I've made this argument at greater length (note to self: learn to be more pithy like Mickey). The type of society we find in Iraq requires that we do a great many things right in order to be able to successfully transform it in ways that will benefit US and Western security in the long run. We didn't just need to defeat Saddam with a minimum of casualties all around. We needed to avoid unnecessary causes of bitterness among the Iraqis so that they will be more receptive to amount of changes needed to make their society capable of supporting a liberal democracy. As war goals we needed to:

  • get all the intelligence files intact (hard to do when buildings were looted and burned and bombed)
  • find all the WMD stuff (which meant capturing as many regime members and files as possible).
  • capture as many regime members as possible (needed more troops near the border with Syria before closing on Baghdad).
  • Protect from destruction of anything that would give Islamists propaganda to argue that the US invasion was an attack on Islam (like protecting thousand year old Korans from being turned into ashes would have been a good idea)
  • Establish order quickly so that all parts of the Iraqi public felt protected by Americans and at the same time didn't feel a need to turn toward the local mosque for ad hoc government with an Islamic tinge.

Mickey is right in arguing that the symbolic losses like the burned up Islamic documents will be remembered for a long time. Islamists will be citing these losses for decades and even centuries. A bigger force in Baghdad tasked with protecting a list of symbolically important buildings would have reaped big dividends during the occupation and post-occupation periods. There is something short-sighted in the Pentagon's war plans.

In wars there can be unavoidable and yet highly undesireable outcomes. Deaths from friendly fire incidents and accidents were unavoidable. Also, deaths of some number of civilians were unavoidable. But what happened with the looting, burning, and loss of highly symbolic and valued artifacts were avoidable for the most part and at the same time it was highly desireable to avoid these losses. So the conduct of the war really does deserve to be criticised by hawks who supported the war.

There were people telling the Pentagon what they ought to do. Whose decision was it to ignore this advice?

Senior U.S. officials with responsibility over postwar Iraq were highly critical of the delay in securing those facilities. One official interviewed in Kuwait described it as "the barn-door phenomenon." He said retired Lt. Gen. Jay M. Garner, the occupation governor of Iraq, sought special protection for 10 Iraqi ministries, identifying them as potential repositories of weapons data, but that only the Oil Ministry remained intact after U.S. ground forces took possession of Baghdad. Combat commanders, the official said, gave "insufficient priority to getting into these places," and "there wasn't enough force to accomplish that initial sequestering of buildings and records."

I see these mistakes as the result of failures in the formulation of grand strategy. The war goals were too narrowly defined because the challenges that we face are not well articulated. The important question is why? Do the Bush Administration's leading members underestimate the obstacles in the way of transforming an Arab society into a liberal democracy? Do they underestimate the size of the "Hearts and Minds" battle that the US is fighting in the Arab and larger Muslim world? It certainly seems that way. A naive belief in the universal appeal of democratic liberalism appears to lie at the base of the strategic miscalculation which the conduct of the war in Iraq has revealed. This naive belief is not a misconception that the leaders of the United States government can afford at this point in time.

Share |      By Randall Parker at 2003 April 24 02:19 PM  Politics Grand Strategy

AMac said at April 24, 2003 3:05 PM:

This is a cogent summary of "what went wrong" placed in the context of "what went right." I wonder how much the "boots on the ground" factor on the collapse of the Ba'athists was changed, adversely, by Turkey's refusal to allow transit of the 4th Division to the northern front. Still, surely we could have made much better provisions to have military police ready to enter Baghdad from the south. Unlike a mechanized division, movements of M.P. units aren't hamstrung by the need to move M1 tanks, Bradleys, and so on.

This analysis deserves much wider circulation. The pressing question now is, if we haven't learned from our mistakes of the recent past, how will we navigate the immediate future? If the war and subsequent US occupation don't lead to perceptions that life is better for most Iraqis, much of the sacrifice will have been in vain.

Are we stumbling because our leadership is hurriedly and belatedly learning to get it right, or is this a sign that they still don't understand what's at stake? Or worse, do Bush and his inner circle understand, but not particularly care? Maybe they have domestic or philosophical reasons for (still) wishing to avoid 'nation-building.' As understood by many hawks (e.g. me), the strategic vision of this war was to challenge both fundamentalist political Islamism and Arab-style fascism by offering Iraqis a more prosperous, secular, and free vision of a mostly Muslim and Arab society.

Randall Parker said at April 24, 2003 4:21 PM:

I do not buy the "if only the 4th ID had come down from Turkey" argument as an excuse for a couple of reasons.

First of all, it was the responsibilty of the war planners to make sure that enough force was available to achieve the war objectives. It was imprudent to rely on Turkey. Additional reserves should have been present.

Secondly, it seems obvious from the statements coming from the Pentagon that they did not see the rapid establishement of order in Baghdad to be a priority. They also didn't think it important to refrain from bombing some ministries that might contain useful information. They also seemed to think that if they just minimized Iraqi civilian casualties that that alone would have a sufficiently salutary effect on the Iraqi population to make occupation rule easy to do.

As for the wishes to avoid "nation-building": The invasion of Iraq was a campaign in a larger war and that larger war has a very large "Hearts and Minds" element to it. What some of the hawks want to do is besides the point. What would help to win the larger war? How much would each additional move cost and what benefit would each move provide?

To a certain extent I see the military as being like someone with a hammer who goes around looking for nails to whack. They have JDAMs and so they want to go around solving our strategic problems by dropping JDAMs. Well, there are elements to the larger strategic picture that can't be solved solely by precisely blowing up stuff. The war has to work on a whole lot of other levels. It doesn't appear that the war planners understand this.

wretchard said at April 25, 2003 3:04 AM:

The force that the US could deploy in the south was limited by the narrowness of the Kuwait front and its logistical constraints. During Desert Storm, the much larger Saudi facilities were virtually saturated, and to house a similarly sized force in much smaller Kuwait would be problematic. In order to illustrate the limits on Kuwait facilites, even as Iraqi Freedom was ending, Australian relief food ships could not dock in the deep water port because all the berths were completely used by USN ships. There was also the fear that concentrating a large number of troops in so small an area would be to risk heavy casualties in the event of an chemical or biological attack on the staging troops.

The narrowness of the attack lines themselves would have created logistical problems for a larger force. Tommy Franks had to plan on moving his spearhead 400 miles from the start line to reach the Karbalah gap. Anyone who believes that Franks should have waited for the 4th ID or an equivalent unit before attacking should show, at least on paper, how he could have made the dash with two mechanized divisions abreast to the Baghdad suburbs in under a week. It would have doubled the logistical load. Throughout the campaign, Franks was always logistically limited, not combat-power limited.

In the event, tempo itself was probably the principal reason for the rapid collapse of Baghdad. Had "more boots on the ground" been used, victory would have been as certain, but tempo would surely have suffered. We will never know whether the Ba'ath could have used the slower pace to mount a more effective defense in the capital city, and perhaps the additional devastation would have offset whatever peacekeeping abilities more troops would have provided.

AMac said at April 25, 2003 7:10 AM:


Your description of the logistical limits imposed on Gen. Franks et al. by the situation rings true. However, this does not squarely address the fundamental issue--defining and prioritizing war aims, prior to determining how to achieve them. It seems to be becoming clearer that post Ba'athist-regime-collapse stability wasn't adequately planned for because it wasn't seen as a priority by the Pentagon.

Absence-of-looting is "icing on the cake" compared to other issues, if the objective is limited to destroying the Saddam regime without high US or civilian casualties, in a short period of time. Absence of looting, preservation of regime records, provision of security, establishment of a secular authority, and so forth, are essential war goals if the overall aim is to allow Iraq to become an alternative vision of a Successful Nation-State for the Arab world.

Logistical limitations did not prevent the marshalling of M.P.s and Humvees outside of Kuwait, then airlifting them into Baghdad, as a possible for-instance. Something like that hasn't happened, because it wasn't planned for, because it wasn't a priority. Can't plead ignorance, either--Garner apparently wrote memos on the subject, as did academics who were invited to present at the Pentagon during the run-up (according to NPR this morning; even if they are not always trustworthy, this report seemed credible).

Randall Parker said at April 25, 2003 8:18 AM:

Wretchard, The US had many months during which to build up physical supplies in Kuwait. The US built an air field in Qatar and other facilities in the region. If it needed a bigger capacity to unload ships in Kuwait it could have built that capacity.

As for the bottleneck in concentrating troops: There was an argument for not massing as many troops in case the troops got hit by chemical or biological agents. But the vast bulk of what the troops needed was their equipment, food, fuel, and other physical items. Putting them in Kuwait did not create a risk. The troops could have been kept nearby (e.g. in Qatar) to be flown in as soon as other troops had moved out into Iraq.

wretchard said at April 25, 2003 10:34 PM:


Absence of looting, preservation of regime records, provision of security, establishment of a secular authority, and so forth, are essential war goals if the overall aim is to allow Iraq to become an alternative vision of a Successful Nation-State for the Arab world.

How can anyone disagree? The essential prerequisite for the attainment of these goals was military victory. As I pointed out earlier, the core of Frank's problem is that it may have impossible to arrive in Baghdad with a much larger force than was actually the case in so short a time. The peace-and-order tasks would have to be assigned to those leading elements because the interval between regime collapse and the looting was virtually instantaneous. In the event, it was combat troops and not MPs that suppressed the looting. In those first days, American troops never knew whether they were facing feyadeen or ordinary thieves when they were sent to police a site, which they were almost always seeing for the first time.

So if you accept that the size of the initial spearhead was going to be limited and that all the civil affairs and civilian relief was going to be drawn initially from that pool, the issue becomes what priority to assign that mission in the planning. We now know it could have been higher. However, Franks would have been crucified if the US had met a brutal fight for Baghdad and it was subsequently revealed that a substantial part of the spearhead had been tasked to civil affairs.

I have seen the view expressed in other posts that Americans should have brought more medical personnel in the leading wave to deal with civilian injuries. After all, a child's life is more important than an old cuneiform tablet. Yet, this too, would have meant a dilution of a limitedly-sized force with medicos, something we can safely say we should have done in retrospect. What is unclear to me is whether Franks could have responsibly planned for it in prospect.

Please understand that I am not arguing with either you or Randall in principle. And both of you would be unarguably right if someone can show how Franks could have reached Baghdad with the same speed with enough forces for combat and civil affairs, given the length and terrain of the advance. In short, what you both suggest is desirable. I'm not sure it was feasible. Personally, I think what Franks achieved, on its own terms, was practically regarded as impossible by a wide range of military professionals, including retired American and active Russian generals.

Randall Parker said at April 25, 2003 10:57 PM:

Like I said, the US could have brought a much larger number of troops. There were factions in the Pentagon in the Army who wanted to do so. They were overruled by Rumsfeld. Rumsfeld screwed up. The Pentagon spokesmen are now making excuses for screwing up. Do not be fooled.

AMac said at April 27, 2003 8:28 PM:


Again, I agree with your main points--up to a point. Certainly, much coulda-woulda-shoulda criticism can only be made in retrospect, once last week's unknowable future has turned into today's past. These banal commentaries are not worth very much.

I return to the question of "how did the Pentagon define success?" Elements that are not mission-critical for winning battles should have been viewed as essential in the broader context of winning the war, including its post-occupation hearts-and-mind phases. This was evident to some in the US military at the time, not simply in retrospect.

Parapundit has posted additional entries in the past few days that seem to substantiate this point.

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