History Will Credit Shinseki

As he stepped down from office this week as the U.S. Army chief of staff, Gen. Eric Shinseki probably breathed a big sigh of relief. He had been put through the meat grinder in his job, particularly during Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s tenure.

Shinseki deserved better. An extremely honorable and ethical man with a distinguished combat record, the first Japanese-American to lead a U.S. military service, and the father of the Army’s plan for transformation to a lighter and more deployable force, he should have been viewed as a hero. In real time, Washington has thought of him as the man most likely to be in Rumsfeld’s cross hairs on any given day. The rumor mill also sees his Army as the military service most likely to suffer deep force cuts to free up funding for Rumsfeld’s broader military transformation agenda.

Upon closer inspection, however, Rumsfeld and Shinseki have served the nation well together. On most major decisions related to ground forces made since early 2001—budget matters and the Bush administration’s quadrennial defense review (QDR), the battle plan for Afghanistan, the Crusader artillery system debate, the battle plan for Iraq and, even now, the stabilization mission in Iraq—the better idea generally prevailed.

Sometimes Rumsfeld was right, sometimes Shinseki and the institutional Army were right. Sometimes discussion and debate produced new options neither had advocated initially. Although there is much we cannot know looking in from the outside, the relationship appears to have worked, albeit in its own tortured and unpleasant way.

Consider the big debates in turn. Early in Rumsfeld’s tenure, the secretary’s study groups were talking about slashing the active duty Army from 10 to eight divisions or even less, believing future military competition with China and Iran far more likely than ground power intensive operations in places such as Iraq, Korea and the Balkans. Predictably, the Army fought very hard against this idea, partly on parochial grounds but mostly because it was a bad idea. Thankfully, given what has happened since, the Army won the debate, and the September 2001 QDR preserved Clinton’s Army virtually intact.

Even as that document was being printed, 9/11 changed the military environment instantaneously, and battle plans had to be developed for waging war against the Taliban and al-Qaeda in Afghanistan. Reportedly, the institutional Army thought that something resembling a traditional invasion force might be needed. Rumsfeld, as well as CIA Director George Tenet and CENTCOM commander Gen. Tommy Franks (an Army officer, but no longer acting as part of the institutional Army in his joint-service job) favored a nimbler battle plan.

Although the latter approach contributed to the eventual mistake at Tora Bora, in which America’s Afghan allies apparently let al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden and cohorts escape through mountain passes as U.S. airpower pummeled the region, it was the right way to defeat the Taliban. If the Army won the QDR debate, Rumsfeld won the Afghanistan debate—and in both cases, the country got the better of the two proposed policy options.

Then came the Iraq issue, starting in early 2002. Although Rumsfeld is generally perceived as having won this debate to the Army’s loss, the truth is mostly the opposite. Early on, most of the office of the defense secretary apparently believed that the Afghanistan model of warfare could work in Iraq. If not Rumsfeld himself then Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, Undersecretary Douglas Feith and some members of the Defense Policy Board were on record as believing small U.S. forces could work with the Iraqi opposition to overthrow Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein.

The rumor mill suggested that initial civilian-inspired Pentagon plans included a proposal for going to war with just 50,000 U.S. troops. Wisely, Rumsfeld allowed himself to be talked out of this idea, and the Army prevailed. Sure, the Army would have preferred to have more than 300,000 U.S. troops fight the war rather than 250,000, but even Rumsfeld preferred that higher number himself—falling back on the somewhat smaller option only after Turkey refused U.S. forces access to its territory in March of 2003. Rumsfeld did push for greater use of special forces, and on that point he prevailed—again, to the benefit of the country.

But even as the Army was winning the Iraq debate by the summer of 2002, it was getting hammered in the budget process. Its desires to fund the heavy Crusader artillery system, and perhaps to increase the size of the active-duty force, were thwarted by Rumsfeld. According to some sources, it was actually President George W. Bush who killed the Crusader to make good on a campaign pledge. But Rumsfeld obliged, and used his prestige and force of argument to prevail in the debate despite considerable congressional opposition.

For an army already possessing excellent artillery, and trying to stay on course toward a lighter force, it was counterproductive to buy Crusader or increase its personnel tallies. Chalk one up for the civilians; again, the better idea carried the day.

Moving ahead to 2003, Shinseki had his most famous disagreement with his civilian superiors over stabilization requirements for postwar Iraq. Much to Rumsfeld’s and Wolfowitz’s chagrin, he told Congress that as many forces would likely be needed to keep the peace as to win the battle. So far, he is clearly being proven right. But tip your cap, at least halfway, to Rumsfeld; despite his initial ideological blinders on the subject, he is keeping the postwar U.S. presence strong enough to get the job done as it becomes clear that the job will be hard.

Ironically, there was little fundamental disagreement between Shinseki and Rumsfeld on the issue they both seem to care about most—changing the American military. Shinseki pushed hard for the medium-weight Stryker brigades, achieving the unthinkable and taking a program from initial concept to initial deployment within a four-year term as service chief. He has also pushed very hard to expedite research and development for a longer-term “objective force.”

Perhaps out of jealousy that the concept was not his, perhaps because of their poor personal chemistry, Rumsfeld never gave Shinseki the credit he deserved for this idea. But as noted, history probably will give the retired general that credit—and again, the nation will gain.