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Gelb: Rumsfeld’s Resignation Should Have Been Accepted a Year Ago

Interviewee: Leslie H. Gelb, President Emeritus and Board Senior Fellow
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor
April 19, 2006

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Leslie H. Gelb, president emeritus of CFR and a former Pentagon and State Department official in the Johnson and Carter administrations, says the public criticism of Secretary of Defense Donald M. Rumsfeld by some retired senior military officers is due to their unhappiness "that they didn't speak up earlier, while they were on the job."

"In good part, they were telling us the reason they didn't speak up, and the reason they think their colleagues didn't speak out against the Rumsfeld decisions, is that Rumsfeld was intimidating them and making it impossible for them to say their piece," Gelb, a senior board fellow, says. He says that it would have been better for the country if Rumsfeld's resignation had been accepted a year ago.

"He had become a serious lightning rod; it was hard both for Democrats and a number of Republicans to work with him; and, inside the Pentagon, the poisonous atmosphere had begun to develop. And here we are, n two wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and you can't have a secretary of defense under so much fire [still] being able to do his job at the same time."

You and I have been observing developments in the political-military sphere for many years. I can't remember anything similar to this current "revolt of the retired generals" against Defense Secretary Rumsfeld. Can you?

The history of anything like this is quite short. Back in the Truman administration there was something called the "revolt of the admirals" but that was essentially over the Navy budget. Then you have to jump forward many, many years to the Vietnam War. There was an enormous amount of grumbling and criticism by the military of the civilian leadership, particularly of Defense Secretary Robert McNamara [who served under Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson].

What was the criticism about?

The criticism was over McNamara's strategy and the White House's strategy of how to fight the war. This is the exact same thing that's come up now with respect to Iraq. McNamara, McGeorge Bundy—who was national security adviser for Presidents Kennedy and Johnson [1961-66]—and others wanted to follow a gradual approach to the war, signaling to Hanoi with each new increment of American power that we could do more down the line. They said do it gradually, both as a punishment and a warning of more to come.

This was also, as I recall, to keep China out of the war. Right?

Well, the main thing to keep China out of the war was not to invade North Vietnam itself, or to bomb Haiphong Harbor, where a lot of Chinese equipment came into North Vietnam. The Air Force and the Navy were criticizing McNamara very harshly—but privately—over that strategy. They wanted a more all-out air bombing campaign that wouldn't allow the North Vietnamese time to adjust. As unhappy as they were—and they were extremely unhappy—they never went public with it by name, only by leak.

You mean they didn't publicly speak out, but they leaked their dissatisfaction to the press?

That's right. No serving or retired generals stood up to criticize McNamara's handling of the war, even though they were doing that privately. Essentially they made their unhappiness known through press leaks.

Now you were in the Pentagon in those days, among other things putting together what later became known as the "Pentagon Papers." Do you think the criticism was warranted? If there had been a heavier bombing would it have made much of a difference?

I don't know that it would have made a difference in the ultimate outcome of the war, because I think the North Vietnamese and their allies in the South, the Vietcong, were going to fight as long as necessary to drive out any foreign power. The force of nationalism was that strong. But I think it would have made a difference in the military campaign. I think what the military was saying was militarily correct—that we could have done much more damage and made it much more difficult for the North Vietnamese to adjust with a more all-out bombing campaign.

Now, of course we did mine Haiphong harbor, but that was in the Nixon administration when most of the U.S. troops had already left.

That's correct. The last incident I can think of took place in the Carter administration, where one of the senior army generals in Iraq, General John Singlaub, publicly attacked President Jimmy Carter while serving, over Carter's decision to withdraw some U.S. troops from South Korea. And Carter fired him. And as far as I can remember, that's it.

What do you think is the impetus driving these generals?

Well, all of them either served in the war in Iraq or were intimately involved in the planning of that war. So these were people who all knew what they were talking about. Now what's the motivation? I think, in part, they all are unhappy that they didn't speak up earlier while they were on the job. In good part, they were telling us the reason they didn't speak up, and the reason they think their colleagues didn't speak out against the Rumsfeld decisions, is that Rumsfeld was intimidating them and making it impossible for them to say their piece. And while none of them pointed directly to the fate of General Eric Shinseki, the chief of staff of the Army, they had that very much in mind. You'll remember, Shinseki is the one who told Congress in early 2003 it would take at least 300,000 troops to safely garrison Iraq after a military victory. But he got fired and nobody came to his defense.

And Secretary of the Army Thomas White was fired for backing him, right?

That's exactly right. People have forgotten that, but Army Secretary White did the same thing. So the others looked at it, and said, well, it just doesn't work, so they'd go along and try to adjust to the system. And additionally, as you know, these guys do not like to criticize the civilian sphere, because they believe it would have a terrible effect on the morale of the serving troops.

So now you have this incredible situation where active duty generals are being called on to back the secretary of defense against their former colleagues.

Yes. This is a very tricky situation, because people go to Iraq, like I did a year ago, governors and senators, and they talk to these people, these generals. And by and large, the generals say we're making progress, and you don't hear much criticism from them. But those of us who know many of them personally, over the years, hear two stories: the official story, and then a much more pessimistic one privately.

So it causes great confusion in the minds of the American people, because the generals are saying very positive things for publication, and a number of them are being much more cautious, and even critical, in private.

I was fascinated in reading Cobra II, the new book by Michael R. Gordon, the chief military correspondent of the New York Times, and retired Marine Lt. Gen. Bernard E. Trainor, where they quote a number of the generals or colonels who are critical of the planning for the war on the record, which is unusual, I thought.

Yes, very. It shows the degree of their frustration, because all the military planning over the course of a dozen years for Iraq—and that's how long the planning has been going on there—showed you need at least 300,000 troops on the ground in order to provide basic security. And almost all of it also showed that you needed to keep as much of the Baathist-dominated army intact, after military victory, to support those 300,000 troops. But what we had was about 125,000, and virtually no Iraqi army. So, you know, this was at least—at least—400,000 or 500,000 troops short of what the planning said was necessary.

Put yourself in the mind of Rumsfeld. Now, you've dealt with Rumsfeld for years.

Yes, decades.

Why was he so stubborn on keeping the troop level on such a minimum level?

You know, there are two explanations, a good one and a bad one. I don't know which is true, or if both are true. The good one is, he really believed he could do the job with 125,000 troops or so, and he could keep the necessary security thereafter, and essentially get out. He believed his own propaganda about Iraqis welcoming us with open arms, and that we wouldn't need to fight after we got rid of Saddam. So, you know, that's the benign, positive explanation.

The bad explanation is that he and [former Deputy Defense Secretary Paul] Wolfowitz and others feared that if the American people were told that you needed 300,000 plus troops for an extended period in Iraq, in order to do the job, that there would be opposition to the war. And they were interested in making sure that opposition was de minimus, and they were willing to take the risk on the ground in Iraq.

It's ironic, because at the time the war was launched, I don't think the public knew the difference between 125,000 or 325,000, so long as the job got done.

Well, I'm not sure, and I don't think that was their opinion. They were worried about public reaction to a large-scale and extended troop involvement. The same thing on paying for the war. You'll remember that Wolfowitz said, so far as reconstruction was concerned, it would be paid for out of Iraqi oil revenues. Well, at that very time he was saying that, all of us who had been involved in post-war planning—and we had a study underway at the Council at the time—knew from the oil companies that that was inconceivable, and that oil production would go down below pre-war levels, and that it would be many years before production would come up to pre-war levels, let alone be able to pay for economic reconstruction. If you remember, Wolfowitz said it might cost us $1.5 billion. It's over $200 billion now.

Well, it's quite clear that the president is committed not to let Rumsfeld resign. Do you think he would have been better served with Rumsfeld out of there?

I think both politically and in terms of the decision-making process, it probably would have been best to accept his resignation a year ago. He had become a serious lightning rod; it was hard both for Democrats and a number of Republicans to work with him; and inside the Pentagon, the poisonous atmosphere had begun to develop. And here we are, we're in two wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and you can't have a secretary of defense under so much fire [still] being able to do his job at the same time.

What is your opinion of him, putting aside the criticism? If you were writing an essay about Rumsfeld, what would you say? Has be been a lousy secretary of defense?

I think he did a pretty good job with the continuing process of reforming the military. That is, he was pushing them in the correct direction. It wasn't done in a very cooperative spirit, but he did push that process. I'm not sure if he correctly tackled the strategic problems that are facing the United States today. If you look at his statements that pertained to the budget, they tend to be more ideological than they are serious policy statements. And, you know, in terms of the handling of both the Iraq and Afghan wars, I think history will show—and the histories that have been written already show—that there were more minuses, far more minuses, than plusses.

Do you think, really in hindsight, if there had been, say, 350,000 troops in Iraq, that that would have made a difference?

I know it's very contentious, whether things would have worked out differently even if we had the proper number of troops. But I do believe that if we had had over 300,000 troops there, within the first two months after getting rid of Saddam, and had kept the Iraqi army intact except for the senior officer corps, that we would have been able to establish security, get economic projects underway and completed, and that we would have been able to pass that country on to the Iraqis, in relative peace, within two years or so. I do believe that.

Now in the book My Year in Iraq by L. Paul Bremer, who was head of the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA), says the Iraqi army had already disintegrated and his decree disbanding it officially was just a formality.

He can state anything he wants. If the word had gone out that there were junior officers reconstituting the force, that they were going to get paid $200 a month, they would have been back there.

Well, in fact the book by Trainor and Gordon states the U.S. military was already recruiting Iraqi officers when they were ordered to stop by Bremer.

They didn't have a hard time getting volunteers.

Right. So how's this thing going to end?

I think the generals, on balance, did a courageous thing. They spoke up and they broke that wall of silence that had been protecting President Bush and Secretary Rumsfeld, who were making it look as if the military were really happy with their decisions. That had always been their defense. They said they gave the military whatever the military wanted. Well, that just wasn't correct. So that story has been largely shattered. And even though you haven't had more than six generals come forward to support it, and even though you haven't had resignations of active duty generals, I think the public understands that these people who have spoken out represent only the tip of the iceberg. It will make them think even harder and more critically about where the president is leading us in Iraq.

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