Rumsfeld Interview

Given this piece from the other day, I thought this was an appropriate followup.  Daily Show fans have probably already seen his interview from last night with former Defense Secretary Donald Rumseld, but for those who have not I would recommend it.  Rumsfeld was unquestionably one of the most important architects of the Iraq war, and I think this interview fits in nicely with the discussion from the other day regarding the influence of unelected actors in the policymaking process.  I found it particularly interesting how Rumsfeld acknowledges the important role played by presidential advisors in this process, but really seems to shift accountability away from the Defense Department and onto the State Department and the non-descript "intelligence community" (of which the DOD is an incredibly important member).  

It's worth noting Rumseld's comments regarding his previous remarks on "going to war with the military you have, not the one you wish you had."  I think it's easy to dismiss this comment as another of Rumsfeld's  witticisms, but I think the question it poses is important and worth exploring.  How much do we really know about how the decisions of an administration's predecessor constrain the ability of the current administration to act in certain ways?  If we are to take Rumsfeld at his word–not much.  He seems to be implying that the capabilities of the state don't factor into decisions related to the use of force, or at least that they only matter to a certain extent.  Policy objectives come first–capabilities matter second. 

Some of his remarks also suggest some interesting things insofar as the learning process of the miltiary/DOD is concerned.  Is it preferable to invest significant amounts of money and resources up front to address possible shortfalls?  Or is it better to go to war, knowing that capabilities are less than optimal, but that investments in updating or upgrading capabilities will be more efficiently and effectively applied after more information is gained through battlefield encounters?  Rather, that it is impossible to know what the optimal allocation of funds is until more information is gained? 


About Michael Flynn

Michael Flynn is an associate professor in the Department of Political Science at Kansas State University. He received his Ph.D. in Political Science from Binghamton University in 2013. His research focuses on the political and economic determinants of foreign economic and security policy, security issues, and state repression.

5 Replies to “Rumsfeld Interview”

  1. Very interesting interview. Obviously, a lot of what Rumsfeld is doing is trying to dodge or shift blame. But still worth a listen.
    I was particularly interested in Rumsfeld’s Parade of Horribles; the frequent emphasis on uncertainty, yet nonetheless, the clear sense that the administration anticipated the way events would unfold far better than the public might have guessed; and Rumsfeld’s confirmation that Bush offered to let Saddam and his family leave the country. And I like Jon Stewart’s point that pretty much every argument that was made in favor of invading Iraq could have applied equally to Iran, Pakistan, Libya, and other countries. Very interesting stuff.
    I think the bit about going to war with the army you have is mostly positioning. But I do think it’s likely the case that states rarely mobilize to the extent that would completely minimize resistance/complications/chances of defeat. After all, mobilization is incredibly costly. What I’d like to know is how much of the gap between, on the one hand, the ideal level of preparation in a world where there are no costs to mobilizing, and, on the other, the level that states choose, can be explained simply by the costs of mobilizing and how much (if any) is subject to political distortions.
    By the way, I hadn’t seen the Acheson quote you mentioned yesterday, but it sure sounds like something Acheson would say. And it’s a really good quote.

  2. I think you’re right about the idea that “why Iraq?” is still a largely unanswered question. The security based arguments could be applied to a number of states, and I don’t remember Rumsfeld in the interview offering a clear response to why we chose Iraq, other than the fact that Saddam he was a pretty mean guy. He didn’t really address the balance of power/power vacuum issue either, did he?
    I also agree that states rarely mobilize to an “optimal” point, but there may be less positioning than we think. Some of it is certainly political cover (I mean flak jackets seem like a no brainer), but I think that a significant portion of learning and adaptation in any war comes after the initial mobilization period. At least if we think of it in terms of mobilization of resources in general, I think it’s probably the norm for states to begin shifting emphasis/priorities in mobilization after combat has actually begun. Although, it can be difficult to distinguish at times between what we might call adjusting tactics, and continued efforts at mobilization. To a certain extent, though, I think there is a false distinction here insofar as we might be labeling things differently just because one happens before combat and the other happens during combat. Mobilization never really ends, but it does adjust.
    I think the idea of the gap between optimal levels of mobilization and actual is a really cool idea. I was just reading a couple of days ago about how one of Kennedy’s advisers told him very early on that Vietnam could end up taking upwards of 600,000 troops, only to be laughed off by Kennedy and other administration officials. And Colin Powell offers a closely related case, given his employment history and emphasis on overwhelming military force and the will to win.
    There would seem to be significant logistical costs in any operation (time, money, men) but also significant political costs with your constituents. I wonder which tends to play a more important part in establishing the point of acceptable preparedness? This is probably just rephrasing your question from above. I’m inclined to think political climate matters more than logistical factors in most circumstances. However, it’s also possible that the nature of these costs changes after combat has opened up.

  3. I think you’re right, he really didn’t answer why Iraq or address the point about the distribution of power. The only point he made (which I think may actually be reasonable) is that Iran’s nuclear program would probably be more or less where it is today even without the Iraq War. I do think removing Saddam empowering Iran in a lot of ways, but I’m not sure the best way of making that case was to point to their nuclear program. But it’s of course hard to know for sure.
    That’s a good point about how mobilization/adjustment continues after war begins in a lot of cases, certainly including long wars like Iraq or Vietnam. I guess I was thinking more of the typical case. Since the median length of war is only a few months, there’s not a great deal of time for adjustment. Some, at the margins, particularly in tactics, but less so in terms of number of troops and amount of equipment. Still though, there are (unfortunately!) plenty of long wars where the opportunity to adjust during the war itself would be more relevant.
    I keep meaning to write a paper on this, and keep getting backed up with other projects. Maybe a few years from now I’ll finally get around to it…

  4. Good point–I was thinking too much about the US case. I wonder how the knowledge that most wars are short influences decisions regarding the optimal and acceptable levels of mobilization. Surely most leaders recognize this to be the case. The rivalry literature is not my usual playground, but I’d imagine those sorts of dynamics also influence expectations and decisions in interesting ways. I also wonder what sort of impact mobilization has on duration? I don’t remember if anyone has worked on that sort of thing already.

  5. Good points. So little has been done on decisions made during war that it’s hard to say. That’s changed some in the past decade, but the focus hasn’t been so much on mobilization or strategy adjustment compared to changes in war aims and expectations.

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