HomeAU PressBook ReviewsDisplay Review

Air University Press

Rumsfeld's Wars: The Arrogance of Power

Rumsfeld’s Wars: The Arrogance of Power by Dale R. Herspring. University Press of Kansas, 2008, 247 pp.

“Seldom in the long history of the Republic have our men and women in uniform been so badly served by their civilian masters,” observes Thomas Mockaitis, referring to the American debacle in Iraq in Iraq and the Challenge of Counterinsurgency. Prominent among those masters was Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, who will go down in history as one of the worst U.S. secretaries of defense since the end of World War II. His arrogance and assumed omnipotence led him to destroy the existing cooperative relationship between the U.S. military and the Department of Defense. Rumsfeld dominated the Pentagon to such an extent that often his voice was the only one heard. He excluded the military from important meetings, ignored their advice, and surrounded himself with civilian sycophants and officers who were prepared to play the game of Pentagon politics the way Rumsfeld wanted it to be played.

So concludes Dale Herspring in his latest book on civil-military relations. Rumsfeld’s Wars is a very useful addendum to Herspring’s path-breaking The Pentagon and the Presidency: Civil-Military Relations from FDR to George W. Bush, published in 2005. Both books are unusual because they approach civil-military tensions from the all-too-neglected viewpoint of the professional military. Herspring’s thesis is simple and controversial: the intensity of civil-military conflict depends largely on the military’s perception of the president’s (and/or secretary of defense’s) leadership style. Presidents who show genuine respect for the military’s culture—that is, who do not violate that culture—are more likely to develop effective relations with the military than those who do not. Apparently it is not incumbent upon the military leadership to respect the comparatively disorderly political culture in which the president must operate, including the imperative of considering the political effects of military decisions and actions. The decision for war is inevitably a political one, though hopefully one informed by considerations of military feasibility, and there are important examples—Abraham Lincoln and Franklin D. Roosevelt come immediately to mind—of presidents with no military experience displaying better strategic judgment than the military leaders who served them.

Herspring, a retired Foreign Service officer, 32-year Navy veteran, and professor at Kansas State University, believes Rumsfeld was a serial violator of military culture. Rumsfeld not only repeatedly dismissed professional military advice on matters ranging from military transformation to the size of the Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF) invasion force, but also publicly humiliated military leaders, such as US Army chief of staff Gen Eric Shinseki, who had the temerity to publicly stand by their professional opinions. The arrogant and abrasive secretary of defense also sought to substitute his judgment for that of professional promotion boards down to the two-star level and forced his own (mostly wrong) ideas of how the Iraq War should be fought on a reluctant military. Making matters worse, Rumsfeld surrounded himself with military parrots like JCS chairman Gen Richard Myers and his successor Gen Peter Pace, and with civilians, such as Paul Wolfowitz and Douglas Feith, in whom he seems to have mistaken intelligence for judgment.

On transformation, Herspring believes that “Rumsfeld apparently was convinced that the generals would oppose him regardless of how he treated them, so he often excluded them from discussion of force transformation, discussions that would have a major impact on their services.” On Iraq, Rumsfeld was fixated on proving once and for all that speed and precision could be substituted for mass and, in so doing, demolish remaining army opposition to military transformation. For Rumsfeld, the real enemy in Iraq was the Powell Doctrine (and Rumsfeld’s bureaucratic competitor, Secretary of State Colin Powell), not the Iraqi army. “Powell’s approach was anathema to Rumsfeld. He was not interested in a war involving large numbers of troops,” observes Herspring, adding:

Instead, Iraq represented an opportunity for him to prove his military transformation theory by defeating and subduing Iraq with as few troops as possible. . . . Besides [Richard] Perle considered Powell to be a “soft-liner,” not the kind of individual who should be in a top-level position. As a result, Rumsfeld and his colleagues would do everything possible to marginalize Powell and to steal the action from him at every opportunity. There was too much at stake in the impending war in Iraq to allow someone like a former four-star general to mess things up.

Rumsfeld’s exclusive focus on Iraq as both an operational test bed and a bureaucratic opportunity blinded him to the ultimate strategic objective of OIF, which was not the easy task of knocking off Saddam Hussein’s militarily helpless regime but rather establishing the post-Saddam security conditions requisite for Iraq’s economic and political reconstruction. The “transformed” invasion force was simply too small to seize control of the country, and Rumsfeld was in any event completely disinterested in preparing for stability operations in a post-Baathist Iraq, even to the point of denying the fact of rising insurgent resistance to the American occupation.

With good reason is Rumsfeld compared to Robert McNamara. It is all there: the hard-charging CEO reputation, the inability to admit mistakes, the slick press conference performances, the arrogant disdain for professional military opinion, the excessive confidence in technological solutions to nontechnological challenges, the conviction that leadership is simply a function of good management, the abject failure to understand the nature of the war at hand—and finally, their departure from office as political liabilities for the presidents they served. Perhaps the major difference between the two men is that McNamara, at least, seems to recognize his share of personal responsibility for a tragically unnecessary war. McNamara has written two anguished books on the Vietnam War. Rumsfeld has said that he will write memoirs of his career, which presumably will cover his stewardship of the Pentagon as George W. Bush’s secretary of defense and his role in the Iraq War. He has much to explain, or as Herspring might put it, much to answer for.

Jeffrey Record, PhD

Air War College

"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."

Strategic Studies Quarterly (SSQ) and the Air & Space Power Journal (ASPJ) publish book reviews to inform readers and enhance the content of articles in the journals.