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On the Record

Rumsfeld’s Memo

LIANE HANSEN: This past week, USA Today reported that Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld had written a memo to his top subordinates bluntly questioning whether the United States is winning or losing the war on global terrorism and asking whether the Department of Defense is changing quickly enough to deal with the challenges of what he called the, quote, “21st century security environment.” Rumsfeld answers his own question, writing that the Pentagon cannot transform itself fast enough to successfully fight global terrorism. Brookings Institution senior fellow Michael O’Hanlon closely studies such matters himself and he’s in the studio this morning. Good morning, Michael.

What was your overall impression of Secretary Rumsfeld’s memo?

MICHAEL O’HANLON: I think two things. One, glad that he’s asking these questions and it’s encouraging to see the openness. Second, however, surprised that he doesn’t seem to have more confidence in his own answers to the questions. Now I don’t believe this memo was designed to get out. So maybe he didn’t feel the need to reassure an answer. He does some of that in a Washington Post op-ed today, but nonetheless, I’m a little surprised that he doesn’t seem to have more confidence in the overall campaign.

HANSEN: Well, let’s talk about questions and answers. He asks whether changes being made in the Defense Department are too modest and incremental and he immediately answers that he believes that truly bold moves have not yet been made. What bold moves might best be made?

O’HANLON: Well, the first thing to say here is this is not really the grist for partisan debate that some people are making it out to be. I don’t think his uncertainty is about Iraq. I think he feels that as tough as that mission is we have the right kind of military structures in place obviously to have won the war, the major combat operations, and I think we have fairly good counterinsurgency capabilities to prosecute this part. His uncertainty seems to be more about the broader question of the madrases in Pakistan, the broader effort by al-Qaeda and others to recruit more terrorists, to breed more terrorists, the longer-term problem that any Democrat or Republican would have to face, and that is the relatively non-controversial part of this broader campaign against terrorism. That’s where his real focus seems to lie.

HANSEN: In the memo, Rumsfeld asks whether the overall US government has the right structure to deal with terrorism, as you mentioned. What is he getting at with that question?

O’HANLON: There are a couple things I believe. One, at the level of military operations, especially in places like Afghanistan, I think he’s wondering if we need some of the mechanisms we might have had in Vietnam where the Marine Corps in Vietnam actually worked in a way to improve civil society and development within villages even as it also provided security. So it was a combined effort, the Combined Action Program, that sort of thing. Well, maybe you need the military to work with small teams of AID people(ph), for example. That might be one idea. Another idea, he raises the possibility of creating a private foundation to fund more moderate madrases and maybe we need that kind of thing. And I think he also feels more generally we don’t have the kind of development capabilities within the State Department or elsewhere to marshal quickly and on a large scale to support an effort in a strategic campaign. We have AID that can go off and do small missions here and there in various parts of Africa, for example. We don’t have many thousands of people who can go and quickly speak the right language, work in a place like Iraq or Afghanistan and really help marshal forces at a political and economic level quickly and in a massive way.

HANSEN: It’s hard to measure whether or not the war on terror is being won or lost, and Rumsfeld wrote ‘the lack of guidelines in this matter.’ What kind of guidelines would be useful?

O’HANLON: Well, he hints at one which is: Are we killing terrorists faster than they’re being recruited and trained? That’s a fairly crude way of thinking about the issue, although, frankly, it’s as good as one can often come up with, but that sort of echoes the way we thought about Vietnam, the body count issue. And he’s obviously frustrated with that kind of answer himself. So even though he hints at an answer, he’s not very content with it. I don’t know how to come up with these guidelines either. I would suggest that many of them are more broadly political. They’re not going to be quantitative military metrics because Rumsfeld is really concerned about things like Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, places where we have allegedly friendly governments in place but where the recruiting of terrorists and the training and indoctrination continues apace despite these last two years of effort and where it’s very hard to find a metric. I would suggest maybe the question’s not even appropriate. I’m not sure we’re going to find metrics to the extent you want to break this down into things you can answer through data. I think it’s going to be a broader question of political change in the Islamic world and I’m not sure how he can reduce that to numbers.

HANSEN: The secretary’s optimistic ultimately that the fight in Afghanistan and Iraq can be won, but it’s going to be—and this is his words—’a long, hard slog.’ Do you share his optimism?

O’HANLON: Yes, generally speaking, although more for Iraq than for Afghanistan because at least in Iraq we’re mobilizing national resources to do this job more or less right. It’s a very hard job, much harder than the public was prepared for by the Bush administration, but I still think most of the basic elements are in place. We’re waging a relatively successful counterinsurgency campaign against a fairly small group despite the bad news on a daily basis from Iraq. It’s still a war. But I think it’s a relatively promising war.

In Afghanistan, by contrast, we’re not putting in the resources even to win that long, hard slog and partly because people like Mr. Rumsfeld have resisted nation-building. So there, I think, he’s almost too optimistic and it’s partly his own fault. It’s not a question of the Pentagon not having the right structures. He hasn’t been willing to make that issue and that mission a priority.

HANSEN: Based on your experience are these sort of discussions typical in the Pentagon?

O’HANLON: Not quite. This is a little more soul-searching, a little more fundamental than I think he’s in the habit of discussing with his subordinates. For one thing, when memos like this get out, it raises questions about whether we even have the foggiest idea of our broader strategy. I’m not sure he really wants to convey that impression. And usually the basic direction he wants to go with policy is known. There was not fundamental debate, for example, about whether to go to war against Saddam Hussein. That broad objective was established, and then we figured out how to do it. This is a broader question about even the basic priorities, the basic mission, and that’s a little bit unusual.

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