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March 17, 2011

Don't Blame the Iraq War Cheerleaders; It Was All Rummy's Fault
Posted by Michael Cohen

So apparently everyone thinks that Don Rumsfeld was a horrible Defense Secretary and his new memoir is a self-serving blight on all humanity.  Seems about right to me; and this view is so widely held that even Max Boot agrees. His review of Rumsfeld's book is lacerating. In particular Boot savages Rumsfeld's lack of introspection and his abundant tactical mistakes in waging the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. I am of course sympathetic to these arguments, but coming from Max Boot they are risible. 

Indeed even eight years after the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan Boot can find no fault with the strategic decisions to go to war in first place. In Boot's narrative the mistakes we've made are purely operational and had we utilized different tactics (like the ones that Max Boot supported) things would have gone swimmingly. Aside from being largely unprovable (one can never know if a different tactical approach might have worked) it also ensures that no one can blame Boot and other Iraq war supporters for anything that went wrong in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Case in point, Boot's criticism of Rumsfeld's handling of the post-war situation in Afghanistan:

He stayed on a disastrous course in Iraq, which was not reversed until he was removed from office in 2007, along with two senior generals whom he had appointed. Less understood, even now, is that Rumsfeld inflicted a similar disaster on Afghanistan. By refusing to increase troop levels after 2001, he allowed the Taliban to get back on their feet and to mount a major offensive, beginning in 2006, that is only now starting to be checked by another troop surge that he undoubtedly would have opposed were he still in office.

This is indeed rich. Of course, as we all know a large part of the reason the US didn't increase troop levels in Afghanistan (and in some cases took troops out of the country) is because the United States decided to invade Iraq in March 2003 - a decision strongly supported by one Max Boot. Might that have had something to do with the revitalization of the Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan and the lack of focus on the war effort there? Apparently not.

In fact, in Boot's view, Rumsfeld's refusal to use US troops for nation building in Afghanistan and Iraq is one of his most cardinal sins:

Rumsfeld explains that he opposed Bush’s freedom agenda: “I did not think resolving other countries’ internal political disputes, paving roads, erecting power lines, policing streets, building stock markets, and organizing democratic governmental bodies were missions for our men and women in uniform.” Accordingly, even though the commander-in-chief had made the establishment of democracy one of the objectives of Operation Iraqi Freedom (“the transformation from dictatorship to democracy will take time,” Bush said on May 1, 2003, “but it is worth every effort”), Rumsfeld chose to pursue a narrower agenda and did not send enough troops to implement a sweeping political transformation. 

But of course this is not true. Establishment of democracy was not one of the key publicly stated objectives of OIF and it's rather telling that the quote Boot uses to make this misleading argument . . . came a month after the war had ended. In fact, Rumsfeld's desire to avoid doing nation building in Iraq (another job he failed miserably at) is one of the few good things you can say about the man.

Not surprisingly this is one of Boot's most prominent criticisms (not unexpected from a man who has publicly extolled the virtues of imperial policing). According to Boot the failure to put enough troops in Afghanistan meant that the US couldn't do nation building there (and there is little doubt that in Boot's view had we done so it would have been successful).

Boot's extraordinarily upbeat view about the US military's capabilities to remake societies is not restricted to just Afghanistan. It's true of Iraq as well and in particular the first few years of the post-war occupation:

We concentrated our troops on giant Forward Operating Bases where they were cut off from the Iraqi population and hence presumably less of an irritant. Far from decreasing violence, however, this led to ever-increasing bloodshed, as Sunni and Shiite extremists used the resulting vacuum of authority to bring Iraq to the brink of all-out civil war.

This is a rather familiar argument from Boot; the inclination to give agency for all political and security developments in Iraq - to non-Iraqis. It wasn't that Sunni-Shiite rivalry was long-standing in Iraqi society or even that the potential for civil war or certainly ethnic violence had been predicted by Iraq observers. No, the fault lies almost exclusively with US military commanders . . . and Donald Rumsfeld. Had we deployed more troops, and in a more population-centric manner, things would have been quite different in Iraq:

The experience of the surge in 2007-2008 showed that American forces were not helpless to resist this rising tide of blood; all that was required was to beef up troop strength and order the troops to protect Iraqi civilians where they lived

"All that was required!" This has to be the most creative reading of what happened in Iraq to quell the fearsome bloodletting of 2005-2006. Again in this narrative, the Iraqi people themselves had virtually no agency; the future of Iraq was predicated almost exclusively on the actions of the United States and especially its armed forces. This argument reaches its apogee with Boot's take on the Sunni Awakening:

Obviously we can never know if “the surge”—meaning an expansion of troop numbers and the adoption of a population-centric counterinsurgency strategy—might have worked earlier, but the odds are that it would have done so.

Certainly there had been earlier expressions of dissatisfaction in the Sunni community with Al Qaeda in Iraq, but they had been ruthlessly snuffed out by AQI because we did so little to protect the population. Contrary to Rumsfeld’s sly insinuation that Petraeus only came to favor a counterinsurgency strategy in 2007, Petraeus had been in favor of such an approach all along. And such a strategy had paid spectacular dividends in 2005-2006 in the northern city of Tal Afar, which Colonel H.R. McMaster’s Third Armored Cavalry Regiment had pacified before the beginning of the Anbar Awakening.

It's really an amazing argument; everything that went wrong in Iraq was operational (somewhere Krepenevich and Sorley are smiling). Again fault lies not with the decision to go to war in Iraq; but how US troops were utilized.

Relying on threadbare pieces of evidence (all of which have little to do with internal Iraqi politics and almost everything to do with US decision-making) Boot makes an argument about the surge that I've never heard a single observer of Iraq defend. Indeed, what spurred the decrease in civilian casualties in 2007-2008 were not efforts to protect the population - instead the surge's success coincided with enhanced US efforts to kill insurgents, the ethnic enclaving of Sunni and Shiite communities in Baghdad, the overreach of AQI by 2006 and perhaps above all the Sadr ceasefire. In short the decline in ethnic killing and the improvement in security was not a result of the surge; it coincided with the surge. Strikingly none of these "other" factors are even mentioned by Boot. 

And the reason is not hard to figure out; an argument of tactical and operational failure is predicated on the notion that invading Iraq wasn't a strategic error, but instead was a mistake solely in execution.  That Afghanistan went to hell is not because we diverted attention from that war or because nation building is hard - it's because we didn't send enough troops. Iraq was a disaster not because the US overstated its own capabilities and by toppling Saddam opened the genie's bottle of long-suppressed national and ethnic rivalry in that country. No, it was because Don Rumsfeld resisted nation-building in Iraq and US military commanders adopted the wrong operational approach. It's quite a thesis; it's also deeply misleading and simply wrong.

At one point in this odious and blame-shifting article Boot offers what is perhaps his most devastating attack on Rumsfeld, "Rather than looking in the mirror to figure out what went wrong, Rumsfeld prefers to point the finger of blame in other directions."

Et tu, Max. Et Tu.


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