WASHINGTON Just before Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld testified before the 9-11 Commission last week, reporters were handed his prepared statement. Unlike statements by other witnesses during the hearings, his came with an attachment a stack of papers almost an inch thick, held together by a binder clip.
"Boy," one reporter remarked under her breath, "he must really be defensive."
In the middle of the pile was a March 2001 memo written by Rumsfeld as he settled into the top Pentagon job. It’s titled, "Guidelines to be Weighed When Considering Committing U.S. Forces." His rules for war, at least at the time, called for prudent use of force.
But Rumsfeld, along with the commander and chief, have violated almost every one of those rules since they took their sharp right turn from the war on al-Qaida into Iraq. It would be funny, if it weren’t so tragic.
Topping his list is making sure the U.S. has "a good reason" to go to war, let alone start one. "If people could be killed, the U.S. must have a darn good reason," Rumsfeld wrote. Well, we’re still looking for one in Iraq, with no weapons of mass destruction to be found, and 600 G.I.s dead and counting, along with untold thousands of Iraqi civilians. (Yes, we got rid of ol’ tinhorn Saddam Hussein, but the world would be a lot safer if we got rid of Osama bin Laden, the real threat.)
Next: "Avoid arguments of convenience," he advised. "They may be useful at the outset to gain support (for going to war), but they will be deadly later."
Before deploying troops, Rumsfeld said three years ago, there must also be an exit strategy.
The post-combat plan should be clear, he wrote, "so we can know when we have achieved our goals and can honestly exit or turn the task over to others." The original goal in preemptively invading Iraq, according to Rumsfeld and the White House, was to disarm Hussein. We invaded only to learn that the first Gulf war had already taken care of that. Instead of exiting, we’re now nation-building, which means the U.S. will likely occupy Iraq for years to come and spend hundreds of billions dollars more of American taxpayers’ money in the process.
Some exit strategy.
Rumsfeld also wisely cautioned, once upon a time: Don’t stretch the troops and drain military resources. "The U.S. cannot do everything everywhere at once," he warned. Too bad he didn’t follow his own advice.
During the Iraq distraction, Al-Qaida regrouped, striking more Western targets than it did in the comparable period before 9-11. Why? The administration diverted troops and intelligence assets, including valuable Arabic translators, from the main terror front along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border to the false front of Iraq before it had finished off al-Qaida or the Taliban, for that matter. Now Pakistan’s phlegmatic Muslim army is having to battle al-Qaida for us and hunt for its still-at-large leaders, while the U.S. client-government in Afghanistan is having to postpone its first general election over growing security threats.
Security in Iraq is even worse.
Although you wouldn’t know it now, Rumsfeld at least thought back then that world opinion matters, and needed to be considered before taking unilateral military action.
"U.S. actions or inactions in one region are read around the world and contribute favorably or unfavorably to the deterrent and U.S. influence," he wrote. "We need to think through the kind of precedent a proposed action, or inaction, would establish."
Also sage advice, and also ignored.
Besides inflaming anti-American passions in the Middle East and breeding more terrorism, the military overreach in Iraq has eroded trust among even some long-time American allies. Large majorities in six of nine nations, including France and German, think America lied about the reasons for invading Iraq, according to a recent Pew Research Center poll.
Yet Rumsfeld ended his rules-for-war memo by asserting the importance of "preserving U.S. credibility." He argued: "U.S. leadership must be brutally honest with itself, the Congress, the public and coalition partners."
It’s a wonder Rumsfeld was even able to find his memo for the hearing. It must have been in a circular file somewhere collecting dust, because it certainly wasn’t in circulation during the administration’s dishonest build-up to the Iraq invasion.