Friday, March 17, 2006

Rumsfeld's missed opportunity

One of the few things I respect Donald Rumsfeld for has been his attempt to reform the structure and bureaucracy of the military. Killing the Crusader self-propelled artillery program, for example, was a smart move. It hurts double to say that, both because I was a tanker (making the Crusader kin of a sort) and because much of the work would have been done here in Minnesota. But the Crusader was a hulking Cold War relic, unsuited for the sort of lighter, nimbler, more flexible military that I agree we need to build.

That's why this essay from Armed Forces Journal caught my eye (a tip of the hat to my friend Munko for pointing it out). It argues that whatever his intentions, Rumsfeld has (once again) messed up the execution, missing his big chance to make a difference in how the military operates:

The Quadrennial Defense Review calls for greater mobility, but the budget terminates both of the Air Force’s airlift programs. The report says America is engaged in a “long war” against terrorism, but the budget cuts back the Army’s planned number of combat brigades. The report says the Pentagon needs to rely more on market forces in its business practices, but the budget proposes creation of a monopoly for producing the most popular military engine in the world.

Despite these seeming disconnects between rhetoric and budgetary realities, the spending request is likely to be the high point of impact for the strategic paradigm underpinning the QDR. The rest of the year will witness a gradual erosion of its influence as political players and private-sector analysts pick apart the rather mediocre document that the Pentagon has presented to them. When the smoke clears to reveal a reconciled Defense Authorization Act for 2007, it will be apparent that the Quadrennial Defense Review didn’t matter; it was another missed opportunity, possibly the last on Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s watch.

The article goes on to detail why the QDR doesn't matter. Essentially, it's too late in the budget and political process. The Bush administration's influence is on the wane as 2008 approaches, and if Rumsfeld wanted to make lasting changes he had to start last year. He didn't.

Rumsfeld didn’t really hit the ground running. Strategic reviews and the filling of key positions took too long during the first year, and then the whole process was overwhelmed by the trauma of Sept. 11, 2001. More distractions followed: the Afghanistan war in 2002, the Iraq war in 2003, Abu Ghraib in 2004. So when the time came in 2005 for another term — and another QDR — Rumsfeld’s team had achieved precious little in the way of true transformation.

As it turned out, much of 2005 was consumed by the review itself. The sixth year of Bush’s eight years in office has commenced, and time is running out for military transformation. Two years ago, it was common for policymakers to say that hard choices would need to be made in the 2006 defense budget. When that didn’t happen, it was predicted that truly momentous shifts would unfold in 2007. Now, people around Rumsfeld are predicting real change in the 2008 budget. However, 2008 is the president’s last year in office, so nobody on Rumsfeld’s team is likely to be around to enforce the priorities contained in that budget. In other words, the transformationists have missed the budgetary boat. It’s too late to radically rearrange the nation’s defense posture.

In addition, the writer argues that Rumsfeld's vision of current conditions and future warfare were flawed:

The experience of the past five years has proven these and other precepts of the Rumsfeld paradigm to be inadequate at best. It is apparent the nation is not in a strategic pause; the U.S. intelligence community isn’t all that good; new networks and sensors do not play a decisive role in coping with emerging enemies (and may empower those enemies more than they do U.S. forces); and today’s adversaries are so different from those of the past that they continually surprise U.S. military leaders. ... That the fight [in Iraq] has not gone so well has to raise doubts about whether he and his advisers understand what the military needs. In retrospect, it seems that despite all the talk about asymmetric threats, Rumsfeld, Vice President Dick Cheney and others had a rather unimaginative view of how unconventional the danger might become.

There's more: Rumsfeld's alienation of Congress, an inability to rein in military entitlements, a detached and indecisive leadership style.

In a way, Rumsfeld sums up much of what I think history will say about the Bush administration: soaring and determined rhetoric sprinkled with good and principled ideas, but based on an unrealistic view of the world and executed with almost stunning incompetence.

It's too bad, because the military needs what Rumsfeld promised to deliver. We can only hope that the next Secretary of Defense has the same priorities and better luck.

Click here for a follow-up/companion post.

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