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Trainor: Rumsfeld Likely to Leave ‘Very Negative’ Legacy as Defense Secretary

Interviewee: Marine Lieut. Gen. (ret.) Bernard E. Trainor
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor
November 9, 2006

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Retired Marine Lieut. Gen. Bernard E. Trainor, who has coauthored a book on the planning for the Iraq war, Cobra II, with Michael R. Gordon, says that departing Secretary of Defense Donald M. Rumsfeld will probably leave a “negative legacy” as a result of his insistence on refusing military requests to plan adequately for the chaos that arose in Iraq.

“Right now, one would say that his legacy’s going to be very, very negative,” says Trainor, even though it is possible if the war ends well, history’s opinion might improve. “He’ll be remembered for the miserable execution of the Iraq war, and he’ll not be remembered for some of the positive things that he did in terms of modernizing the U.S. military.”

General Trainor, you have been a keen observer of the Iraq war since its inception, and you and Michael Gordon have written an excellent book, Cobra II, on the planning for the war. In that book you pinpointed the unhappiness of many combat generals with the troop levels that had been imposed on them by Defense Secretary Donald M. Rumsfeld. Can you elaborate on that?

Rumsfeld is an interesting character. He came in with a mandate from the president to shake up the military. I think there was a feeling in the White House that the military had gotten out of control under the Clinton administration, and it was time to put them back in the box, and that Rumsfeld was just the guy to do it. And as a matter of fact, when Rumsfeld arrived he shook up the military by the way he dealt with them. You may recall there were all sorts of complaints about his management style, which was rather ruthless, and some even thought that because of the bad relationship with the military that he wouldn’t last very long.

Can you just say what the Bush administration meant by the military being “out of control” in the Clinton administration?

There was a feeling that the civilian control over the military was starting to slip, that there wasn’t a firm hand controlling the military. There was an idea that the military felt they were independent of their civilian secretary. It was a very subtle sort of thing. There was a feeling within the incoming administration that Clinton did not come down hard enough upon the military, and I think the new people attributed that to the fact that Clinton had been an anti-Vietnam war guy—he had dodged the draft, he was critical of the military—and that he was reluctant, too timid to really put hard knuckles to the military on any issue, and that anything the military wanted the military would get, because Clinton didn’t want to receive criticism for being anti-military.

So Rumsfeld comes in and he starts to look to his civilian advisors rather than to the military, who he tends to ignore. Then he comes up with an idea that the military is a Cold War legacy organization that we have to modernize—it’s too big, and it’s built en masse to face the Soviets on the plains of Germany. Rumsfeld felt what we need now is a smaller military which is more mobile, more lethal, and we have technology that can give them the wherewithal for the necessary lethality. So when planning for Iraq began, this fit in with Rumsfeld’s approach to transformation, that we can show that we can take out this enemy—a pretty easy enemy with a small, rapid, highly lethal force.

In 1990 the allied force was about a half a million, is that right?

That’s right. And it took a six-month buildup before we attacked. It was far more than we actually needed, but we had painted the Iraqis as ten feet tall, which they weren’t. Well, this time everybody knew that the Iraqis weren’t ten feet tall, after twelve years of sanctions plus the defeat that they had suffered back in 1990 and 1991. And also, if you have a small force with a short buildup, this does not pose political and diplomatic problems. But if you have this big, big buildup, the international community would try to put a great deal of pressure on the president. So they wanted to be able to do this thing very, very quickly with a small force to take advantage of surprise, both against the Iraqis but also to deal with the United Nations and the international community so they’d be able to act unilaterally and present the world a fait accompli after a very short period of time. And there was logic to that.

Skip a little bit ahead here. General Shinseki [former Army Chief of Staff] had told Congress when he was asked that it would take about 350,000 troops, right?

Correct.

And that was based on what, on studies done by the army?

The origins of that number go back to a study called Desert Crossing. It was put together by [retired] General Anthony Zinni, who headed the Central Command in 2000, whose concern wasn’t that Iraq was going to be an aggressor, but that Iraq is likely to implode in some sort of a coup or an uprising against Saddam Hussein. So, Zinni said, “Okay, if that happens, people are going to turn to me and say, ‘We’ve got to do something about it.’” So he put together a study as to what it would take if the Iraqis imploded and the United States had to react, and he thought it wasn’t only in terms of having to fight a residual enemy in Iraq, but to be able to occupy and provide stability and security and services for the eighteen provinces of Iraq.

Now, there were also separate studies by the RAND Corporation, by various other think tanks, as to what was necessary for the war. Not so much focused on the actual fighting portion of it, but the administration of Iraq after the war. But this was rejected by Rumsfeld and company, because they were not interested in the business of restoration and nation building.

And Rumsfeld and his civilian advisors really believed, I guess because they said it publicly at the time, that once we knocked off Hussein’s combat units, the population would rise up and support us and that would be it, right?

That’s right, you’re absolutely correct. The assumptions were made, in large measure on the basis of some very poor intelligence by the CIA [Central Intelligence Agency] and other elements of the intelligence community, that when we went in, we would be welcomed, particularly by the Shiite population in the south and by the Kurds in the north, and certainly accepted by most of the Sunnis and they would cooperate with us. The war plans were designed not to destroy any of the economic infrastructure, electric grids, and things of this nature, because that was necessary for the reconstitution of Iraq, which would be left to the Iraqis because the civil service would be left in place, and we would make use of the non-Baathist elements of the Iraqi army to provide stability and security. The administration believed that many in the international community who were criticizing our unilateral actions would be happy to jump into Iraq to get a piece of the pie as a result of the reconstruction and the oil money.

And so the number of troops that we actually had in 2003 in Iraq was, what, about 145,000?

Well, when we went in we had more than that. The bulk of the fighting taking place was just two divisions, an army division and a marine division. The follow-on forces that were supposed to come on were sent “off ramp,” to use the term that Rumsfeld was fond of. In other words, those who were scheduled to go into Iraq were diverted and [told] “You’re not going to go,” just when they were needed, because we did not have enough boots on the ground after the fall of the regime.

The assumption that the police would be on the job, that we would be able to make use of the army for stability, none of that came about. And then we saw the chaos arising from the looting. We didn’t have enough troops to be able to handle the looting and deal with the remnants of the Iraqi army at the same time.

What would have been the level of troops the military feels they could have gotten by with?

They certainly wanted at least one more division. The First Cavalry was part of the “off ramp” units. The Fourth Division did come in, which was the most advanced of the army divisions, but they came in and exacerbated the problem because they felt that the war was still on. Instead of going in to treat the Iraqis as a liberated people, they came in and treated the Iraqis as though they were an enemy, which caused some of the problem. Then of course the Iraqi army was officially demobilized when L. Paul (Jerry) Bremer went out there as the head of the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA).

OK, we’re still in 2003. Bremer’s now in charge, and he says in his book he started urging Rumsfeld and the President to send in more troops.

Well, that’s exactly right. Bremer gets there, he’s appalled by what he sees, and he recognizes that there aren’t enough U.S. forces to provide stability and security. And then in a contradictory vein, when there’s need for boots on the ground, he turns around and does away with the Iraqi civil service and military. So, in a sense he was cutting off his nose to spite his face, but what he was then also doing is saying “Well, we do need more boots on the ground, but we don’t want them to be Iraqi boots, we want them to be American boots, we need more American soldiers over here.” And back in Washington, from Rumsfeld’s point of view, he’s saying “No, you don’t need moreU.S.forces, that’s not the idea, we want to get the U.S. forces out of there. The Iraqis should be doing something like this.”

Do you have any indication that Rumsfeld had any second thoughts? I mean, after all now it’s 2006, it’s more than three years since the invasion, and clearly the U.S. forces have not been able to put the thing together yet.

I can’t imagine that, given what had happened, he didn’t have second thoughts about what occurred. But again, the idea of using U.S. forces still remained anathema to him, and to a certain degree he was correct, that the real solution was to get the Iraqis to police the area themselves, because if you send more U.S. forces, there was this nationalist element that was existing in Iraq that didn’t want outsiders in there because they are occupiers and so forth.

So how will he be remembered, do you think, in the pantheon of secretaries of defense?

Well, history has a funny way of assessing things. We have to wait for a long time. Right now, one would say that his legacy’s going to be very, very negative. But if somehow or other this thing over the coming years turns out to be an overall success despite all the current misery, he’s going to be remembered as a hero.

But right now I think Rumsfeld is going to leave a very unfavorable legacy. He’ll be remembered for the miserable execution of the Iraq war, and he’ll not be remembered for some of the positive things that he did in terms of modernizing the U.S. military.

Back in 1968 when I was covering diplomacy in Washington, the secretary of defense at the time, Robert S. McNamara, who’d been in there since the beginning of the Kennedy administration, resigned. At that time there was great political opposition toward the war in Vietnam, just as there is in this country toward the Iraq war. Is there a comparison between McNamara and Rumsfeld?

They were similar in that both of them were management types. They came from industry, they had cost-effective ideas on how to do things. McNamara’s idea was you measured everything not on its efficiency but on its effectiveness from a cost basis. And to a certain degree Rumsfeld does the same thing. That’s why his transformation idea was to provide the government with something far more effective that had a lower cost. So both of them had that kind of management mindset which immediately put them at odds with the cultural mindset of the military, which looked less at cost effectiveness and more at efficiency.

Both of them operated on erroneous assumptions which had catastrophic effects. In the case of McNamara, the assumption was that if we put the military forces in there and we go after the main North Vietnamese and Viet Cong forces we’d be able to win the war. Well, that turned out to be wrong because they were far more resilient than we were, and of course in the case of Rumsfeld going in with too small a force, planning to go in and out quickly. That seemed to be the wrong assumption. So they shared those comparisons. But the big difference is McNamara was weak. Rumsfeld is tough. He remains tough. He was a wrestler, he was a fighter pilot, this guy is as hard as nails and he was not somebody that would stop to become a bleeding heart, which McNamara did while he was secretary of defense, which is one of the reasons he resigned, and has remained so ever since, going mea culpa, mea culpa. You’ll never find that with Rumsfeld.

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