A Reality Check for the Rumsfeld Doctrine

Will Donald Rumsfeld, the US secretary of defence who has just led a war to remake Iraq, now turn his sights closer to home and remake the US military?

According to the buzz in Washington, the answer is Yes. Supposedly thwarted by Washington politics and the military bureaucracy two years ago, when he conducted his quadrennial defence review, Mr Rumsfeld is now so powerful and his concept of future warfare is so well validated that he will overcome domestic opposition and at last prepare America’s armed forces for 21st-century warfare. Proponents of this view pour on the accolades for Mr Rumsfeld: he is the most influential cabinet secretary since Kissinger, the strongest defence secretary since McNamara, the most creative battle strategist since MacArthur, the most refreshingly blunt politician since Churchill. They also suggest that the doctrine of overwhelming force espoused by Colin Powell, secretary of state, will soon be replaced by a new Rumsfeld doctrine emphasising high technology, special operations units and sheer brainpower to defeat future foes.

All of this is inevitable political gossip in a town like Washington and in some respects it is even partly true. But what is not true is that Mr Rumsfeld’s ascendance, or the accomplishments of operation Iraqi Freedom, will radically reshape the US military. Indeed, it is doubtful that Mr Rumsfeld himself favours change on the scale advocated by some of his admirers.

But why not? For a decade, US military forces have been built up with a view to the possibility of fighting two big regional wars at once. In principle, those wars could have been anywhere. In practice, everyone knew the Pentagon was thinking mostly about Kim Jong-il’s North Korea and Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. With one of those foes now gone, the old foundation for force planning has been partly demolished. The logic of a two-war capability remains compelling for the US. But the question of which two wars, and which other military missions, the country must conduct is now open to debate.

Those who would articulate a new Rumsfeld doctrine propose several clear guidelines. Nation-building and peacekeeping are out. Possible pre-emptive attacks against Syria, Iran and North Korea are in. Long-term hegemonic competition with China is likely. Future warfare will be characterised more by space, missile, naval and air power operations than by the ground armies of old.

But there are practical constraints on how far this thinking can go—and as the man actually responsible for America’s defences, Mr Rumsfeld knows this better than anyone. To begin with, of course, America cannot leave Iraq immediately. That commitment alone could consume a couple of divisions for at least a couple of years. Afghanistan continues to tie up well over a brigade, as do the Balkans. Other small missions in the Philippines and elsewhere remain possible in the context of the war on terrorism. War in the Korean peninsula remains a worry, with the potential to require six to eight combat divisions. Already, these real missions and plausible scenarios require at least 10 ready divisions (the current US military has 13 active divisions).

Then there are the wild cards. For example, can we really rule out a Nato-led stabilisation effort in Kashmir at some point? New Delhi would not countenance the idea now; but circumstances could change if India wound up in a war with Pakistan that neared or crossed the nuclear threshold.

Alternatively, the US might be asked by a failing Pakistani government to help it restore stability before civil war led to the country’s break-up—and a potential loss of security over its nuclear arsenal. That mission would not be woolly-headed nation-building; it would be protecting vital US national security interests, pure and simple. If these scenarios seem unlikely, think what the idea of invading Afghanistan to overthrow the Taliban would have sounded like two years ago.

On balance, Mr Rumsfeld may change the military a bit. He may indeed make a modest reduction in the size and budget of the army, using the freed funds for more high-technology projects. However, the changes are likely to be of the order of 5-10 per cent here and there and not more. Mr Rumsfeld may be on top of the world today. But the wrong defence plan could quickly bring him crashing down to earth—and he is too smart not to realise it.