Commentary: It's Time To Shelve The Rumsfeld Doctrine

Too few soldiers and no exit plan have led to upheaval in Iraq

Denial is rampant in Washington. There is denial that intelligence mistakes were made in the months and years before September 11. There is denial that foreign policy mistakes were made in the runup to the war in Iraq. There is denial that the Shiite revolts mark a turning point in the postwar occupation. And most importantly, there is denial that the military strategy going into Iraq, the Rumsfeld Doctrine, is a failure.

The best hope left of establishing a stable Iraqi democracy is to replace that doctrine, which emphasizes small, light, and fast military operations, with its rival, the Powell Doctrine, devised by then Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Colin Powell. The Powell Doctrine calls for overwhelming force shaped by very clear political goals and a specific exit strategy, two things lacking today in Iraq.

The failure of the Rumsfeld Doctrine in Iraq is all too clear -- too few boots on the ground, too little legitimacy for America and its handpicked Governing Council, too many shifting goals, and no clear exit strategy. The result in recent weeks has been a cycle of kidnappings, ambushes, counterstrikes, death, and destruction that increasingly echoes the disaster in Vietnam. The silent majority of Iraqis who in polls just weeks ago said that life was better today than under Saddam Hussein is being radicalized. Moderate Shiite leaders who tolerated the U.S. occupation are turning increasingly impatient and anti-American. The goodwill among the majority of Iraqis that America gained in overthrowing Saddam is being squandered. There is still an opportunity for the Bush Administration to set Iraq onto a political path leading to representative democracy. But it needs to acknowledge mistakes and move on.

Here's why: The Rumsfeld Doctrine promised that a high-tech military could easily win battles anywhere around the world with relatively small numbers of soldiers on the ground. It argued that the power and accuracy of the latest weapons more than compensated for fewer troops, releasing the U.S. from the constraints of needing allies to help supply large numbers of soldiers. It allowed the U.S. to bypass the U.N. and NATO in projecting power overseas. In effect, the Rumsfeld Doctrine provided the military rationale for the Administration's foreign policy of unilateral preemption that was anti-European (Old Europe -- France and Germany) and anti-U.N. Prior to the Persian Gulf War, George H.W. Bush spent months negotiating with dozens of countries to assemble a huge coalition of European and Middle Eastern armies to overwhelm Saddam. Bush I played by the rules of the Powell Doctrine. Bush II took the U.S. in basically alone, with real help only from the British.

The deficiencies appeared in the first days of the Iraq war. American troops were dazzling in their dash across the deserts of Iraq to take Baghdad, and the country, in mere weeks. Yet the relative paucity of troops, one-third of the total used in the Gulf War, meant that many cities were simply bypassed in the invasion, especially in the Sunni heartland, Saddam's source of power. The Sunnis, the 20% minority who have dominated Iraq for centuries, were never conquered. Months passed before U.S. troops entered Fallujah and other towns.

The failure to establish security in Iraq immediately after the downfall of Saddam also led to a loss of legitimacy that is felt today. Not only were Saddam's armed henchmen left to roam free but looters and criminals soon dominated Baghdad and other Iraqi cities. The U.S. military wasn't able -- or willing -- to stop the crime wave. Armed militias coalesced in this vacuum to offer protection to Iraqis, including one overseen by radical fundamentalist cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, who led the recent rebellion. By disbanding the 400,000-strong Iraqi army, the U.S. made the power vacuum worse. Efforts to build a new army and police force didn't work, either. In the recent fighting, the army mutinied and many police joined the rebels.

In the end, former U.S. Army Chief of Staff Eric Shinseki was right when he said that "several hundred thousand" troops would be needed to conquer, occupy, and provide security to the people of Iraq. But that would have required support from Europe and the U.N. Belatedly, the military is asking for roughly 10,000 more ground soldiers, but far more may be needed to provide security to Iraqis.


The bypassing of the U.N. contributed to Washington's failure to build a credible interim government. In Bosnia and Afghanistan, the U.S. asked the U.N. to play a leading role in setting up democratic political systems. But not in Iraq. Instead, the Bush Administration installed exiles led by Ahmed Chalabi, who had virtually no support inside Iraq. Those Iraqis with real power demanded that the U.N. play a central role in shaping the new political process. The man with perhaps the most authority in Iraq, the Grand Ayatollah Ali Husaini Sistani, said from the start of the occupation that he would not negotiate directly with the U.S. but would deal with the U.N. Sistani is a natural ally of the U.S. He is a moderate, calling for Iraqi clerics to stay out of government and to avoid fighting with the Americans. His son is negotiating directly with al-Sadr to end the rebellion. He is also talking with U.N. envoy Lakhdar Brahimi on setting up a new transitional government. Yet L. Paul Bremer III, the chief U.S. administrator in Baghdad, has consistently ignored Sistani.

What is to be done now? A return to the Powell Doctrine would accomplish a number of key goals. Significantly higher troop levels would crush, finally, Baathist resistance and provide more security to Iraqis. The U.S. may have to bring back the divisions it sent home. Accepting a key U.N. role in shaping the political process would bring in moderate Iraqi clerics and promote the best chance of creating a stable government. It is the only way to get support from European and Asian allies.

The realpolitik of the Powell Doctrine would also force Washington to limit its goals and make its exit strategy clear. Is the goal of the U.S. to set up a stable Iraqi government that balances Kurd, Sunni, and Shiite interests? That might take three or four years of military and financial help. But if the goal is to build a genuine Iraqi democracy that protects women's rights, that could take decades. What is truly feasible?

Facts on the ground in Iraq are already pushing the Administration to change course. The military is asking for a lot more troops. Washington is giving the U.N. carte blanche to negotiate directly with Sistani and other Iraqi moderates on the composition of the next transitional Iraqi government, key details of the new Iraqi constitution, and the rules of the national election that will occur in 2005. In his Apr. 13 speech on Iraq, President Bush expressly welcomed the growing role of the U.N. in Iraq and suggested a role for NATO there as well. Washington is finally acknowledging that it can't do it alone.

There is a certain Kafkaesque quality to Washington these days. Congressional hearings are held and speeches are made about September 11 and the Iraq war in which people deny obvious past realities. The bloody events of recent weeks in Iraq are forcing the U.S. to acknowledge a new set of present realities. The Bush Administration needs the help of the U.N., NATO, and its allies. It's crunch time in Iraq. Let's be honest about it.

By Bruce Nussbaum

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