Rumsfeld Forges a Smart War Plan

Even for those of us who often disagree with Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s foreign policy views, his stewardship of the Pentagon is instructive. Most notable in recent months has been the way he has worked with the uniformed military to develop a war plan for overthrowing Saddam Hussein, should that become necessary.

Mr. Rumsfeld’s basic approach has been to push, cajole, question and challenge his war planners in an effort to devise an innovative strategy for any possible war.

In particular, he reportedly opposed the first drafts of the battle plans presented to him last year. These appear to have been somewhat traditional invasion concepts relying on brute strength, huge numbers of U.S. forces and overwhelming firepower. Yet in the end he also heeded military advice that it would be imprudent for the United States to depend on a small force, as in Afghanistan, even if it was equipped with the latest technology and even if fighting a mediocre foe.

What has come out of this process, according to recent press reports, is a smart war plan.

As the uniformed military desired, U.S. forces would number a robust 250,000 or so, providing plenty of firepower to defeat substantial Iraqi opposition should elite Republican Guard forces fight hard. A large force would also help stabilize the country after any conflict, discourage Iraq’s neighbors from mischief-making in the aftermath of Mr. Hussein’s fall and hasten the job of finding and destroying Iraqi weapons of mass destruction so they don’t fall into the hands of terrorists.

Deploying such a force to the region also would increase the chances that Mr. Hussein’s military would turn against him, realizing the ruling regime’s demise has become inevitable.

But Mr. Rumsfeld was right to demand new ideas. Warfare is changing quickly, and it makes sense to look for new ideas. According to the same recent press reports, Mr. Rumsfeld has successfully pushed Gen. Tommy Franks, commander of U.S. forces in the gulf, to devise imaginative ways for using the large forces he would deploy to the region.

First, a few tens of thousands of Americans (and probably British soldiers as well) would move into rural parts of Iraq and establish staging bases. Then they would gradually encircle cities, tightening the noose on Iraqi military movements and stepping up the pressure in the hope that Mr. Hussein might fall of his own weight internally. Targeted strikes against certain Iraqi infrastructure and elite troops would be the next step. All-out street battles in cities would be conducted only as a last resort.

Secretaries of defense, and presidents, have not always done a good job in striking the balance between providing careful oversight of the armed forces while avoiding micromanagement of their operations.

In the 1960s, the Kennedy and Johnson administrations rightly resisted the military’s ideas to bomb Soviet missiles in Cuba. But they were both too tolerant of the military’s strategic concept in Vietnam, on the one hand, and too involved in the details of targeting on the other. In 1983, Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger did not provide enough careful oversight of U.S. military operations in Lebanon, and the Marine barracks there were tragically bombed.

Of course, it is only the preliminary signs that are good in regard to Iraq. The real proof will be in the fighting, not the planning. There is always the possibility that things will start well but then take a turn for the worse. That happened in Afghanistan, where the U.S. strategy for defeating the Taliban worked masterfully in October and November 2001, yet the decision to bomb the Tora Bora mountains in December without first ringing the area with U.S. troops appears to have allowed Osama bin Laden and other terrorists to escape.

But there is much to admire, and emulate, in Mr. Rumsfeld’s work with his military subordinates—even if he often annoys the heck out of them in the process.