Rumsfeld’s Memo on Options for Iraq War

Two days before his ouster as SECDEF, Don Rumsfeld wrote a memo acknowledging that “what U.S. forces are currently doing in Iraq is not working well enough or fast enough” and offering some “Illustrative New Courses of Action” that he felt deserved “serious consideration.” While the early press coverage treats it as if it were an expansive policy analysis, it amounts to an off-the-cuff brainstorming session (or, if you will, a blog post) with a couple of lines about each option, many of which he dismisses offhand as “less attractive.”

Writing for the NYT, Michael Gordon and David Cloud draw some rather odd conclusions:

The memo’s discussion of possible troop reduction options offers a counterpoint to Mr. Rumsfeld’s frequent public suggestions that discussions about force levels are driven by requests from American military commanders.

Perhaps his list is drawn from suggestions that have come up from the field? Or perhaps he thinks the advice he’s been getting might not be correct, what with it “not working well enough or fast enough”?

This is also rather odd:

Another option calls for redeploying American troops from “vulnerable positions” in Baghdad and other cities to safer areas in Iraq or Kuwait, where they would act as a “quick reaction force.” That idea is similar to a plan suggested by Representative John P. Murtha, a Pennsylvania Democrat, a plan that the White House has soundly rebuffed.

I would note that this option is listed under “Below the Line (less attractive options).” Indeed, these six would seem to be there as obvious non-starters designed to make the “above the line” options seem more palatable. Included with the Murtha-esque option are “Continue on the current path” and “[M]oving towards three separate states — Sunni, Shia, and Kurd.” Presumably, Rumsfeld thinks as much of the Murtha plan as he does of those.

WaPo’s Ann Scott Tyson points out that “Rumsfeld’s ideas did not depart radically from the alternative strategies emerging so far from the bipartisan Iraq Study Group or from other military and governmental Iraq policy reviews initiated in recent weeks.” Indeed,

Retired Army Col. Andrew Bacevich, now a professor of international relations at Boston University, said his impression of the memo is that it is a “laundry list” of current ideas entirely lacking in analysis.

That’s my read as well. Rumsfeld is a bright guy and capable of doing much more in-depth analysis on his feet at press conferences so, presumably, his intent was merely to collect the various ideas floating around as a starting point for discussion. Indeed, he notes early that “Many of these options could and, in a number of cases, should be done in combination with others.” Had he intended it to be a detailed analysis advocating a specific course correction, he would have written one.

Steven Taylor, a war supporter who has grown more critical of Rumsfeld and company in recent months, thinks the memo goes a long way to rebutting the “conventional wisdom … that Rumsfeld was recalcitrant in his views on the current approach to Iraq.” At the same time, he doesn’t see any “radical ideas” here.

Kevin Drum notes that the “less attractive options” are basically the ones that the critics are pushing which constitute major departures from the administration’s policy. “The bottom line then, is: maybe some small changes, maybe a change in rhetoric, but nothing serious.” He says that by way of criticism but John Hinderaker sees it as a positive:

[T]he reality is that there is no quick or easy fix for Iraq. What we have been doing isn’t dumb, and it has been by no means completely unsuccessful. It sounds as though we can adjust course somewhat by, as Rumsfeld suggests, being more consistent about punishing bad behavior and rewarding good behavior. But the real change needs to come from the Iraqi people, not from us. The Iraqis will not have a functioning democracy–or, more important, a “normal” country–unless they–and by “they” I mean nearly all Iraqis, not a bare majority–want one. Absent that kind of commitment from the Iraqis themselves, our options are quite limited.

He is, however, intrigued by this option:

Withdraw U.S. forces from vulnerable positions — cities, patrolling, etc. — and move U.S. forces to a Quick Reaction Force (QRF) status, operating from within Iraq and Kuwait, to be available when Iraqi security forces need assistance.

Indeed, he is “mystifie[d]” that it wasn’t “done a long time ago.” Perhaps because it sounds a lot like cutting and running? Or because Iraqi security forces are not ready to handle these tasks that the much better trained U.S. military, which is free from enemy infiltration, can’t? Because abandoning Baghdad would so redefine the concept of “success” as to be a joke?

Mark Schulman is happy that Rumsfeld has put his own favorite option on the table: “Position substantial U.S. forces near the Iranian and Syrian borders to reduce infiltration and, importantly, reduce Iranian influence on the Iraqi Government.” Why we haven’t done that already is what mystifies me.

Overall, though, this memo seems to be a glimpse into what I presume to be an ongoing process that would be the case in any administration with any official with responsibility for a complicated and controversial public policy issue, especially one perceived as failing. Given that the administration remains committed to salvaging as much of its goals in Iraq as possible, it’s hardly surprising that ideas are floating around about how to do that.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Will Roberts says:

    Can’t you read? Or can’t you tell the truth?

    The “Murtha-esque” option–withdraw from vulnerable position to quick reaction force status in Kurdistan and Kuwait–is among the “above to line options.”

    The below the line options are:
    1. Stay the course.
    2. Make a last push for Baghdad.
    3. Send in more troops.
    4. Set a firm withdrawal date.
    5. Tripartition of Iraq.
    6. “Try a Dayton-like process.”

    Any questions?

  2. James Joyner says:

    Will,

    I’d argue that the proposal closest to Murtha’s is below line: “Set a firm withdrawal date to leave. Declare that with Saddam gone and Iraq a sovereign nation, the Iraqi people can govern themselves. Tell Iran and Syria to stay out.”

    The closest above-line option is “Withdraw U.S. forces from vulnerable positions — cities, patrolling, etc. — and move U.S. forces to a Quick Reaction Force (QRF) status, operating from within Iraq and Kuwait, to be available when Iraqi security forces need assistance.” But that isn’t Murtha since it is both open-ended and still keeps forces in Iraq.

  3. Anderson says:

    Because abandoning Baghdad would so redefine the concept of “success” as to be a joke?

    Good one, JJ.

  4. Papa Ray says:

    Many in the Military are all for consolidating the bases in Iraq into four or five “Mega-bases”, that are completely self-sufficient. Including power being generated by solar power units that are currently already in use by U.S. Industry.

    There is a rumor that purchasing and planning has already began in earnest for these bases.

    Rummy may not have laid out his list in the manner that others wanted, but he did send it out with his signature. So take what you like and leave what you don’t.

    That’s what the President and the Pentagon are going to do.
    Papa Ray
    West Texas
    USA

  5. Anderson says:

    Including power being generated by solar power units that are currently already in use by U.S. Industry.

    …?

    Of course, permanent bases have been a sine qua non of the occupation from the very beginning. I’m just skeptical how well we can keep such bases supplied in a perpetually failed state.

  6. Jon Henke says:

    I think Hinderaker was mystified at the “Position substantial U.S. forces near the Iranian and Syrian borders” option — the one below his comment — rather than the “redeploy within Iraq” option (which is above his comment). If you read the comment above the redeploy item, he writes that “This suggestion sounds a bit like Paul’s idea that we should stop trying to police Baghdad, and focus on defeating al Qaeda in Anbar”.

    For what it’s worth redeploying within Iraq — a good idea, in my opinion — is very different than redeploying outside of Iraq. The delusions of Democrats notwithstanding, we are NOT going to re-invade Iraq to deal with potential terrorists/problems once we’ve left. (witness pre-9/11 Afghanistan)

  7. legion says:

    The delusions of Democrats notwithstanding, we are NOT going to re-invade Iraq to deal with potential terrorists/problems once we’ve left.

    Huh? The only person I’ve ever seen push ‘re-invasion’ is Friedman. While he _is_ deluded, I don’t think you’ll find any Democrats that’ll claim him as one of their own…

    And while I understand the immediate purpose of re-deploying troops – get them into relatively safe havens they can operate from without the high manpower- and stress-overhead of extra security – I don’t understand the benefit of practically abandoning areas of Iraq to become safe havens for insurgent ops. I suppose some people are hoping they’ll form together into nice, neat little campsites, away from civilian centers, that we can just carpet bomb away, but I don’t think the insurgents are quite that stupid…

  8. James Joyner says:

    legion: Reinvasion is the premise behind Murtha’s and Kerry’s plans, no? Otherwise, what would be the point of stationing removed troops outside Iraq “just in case”? If we’re not going to send them in — and Jon’s right, if we don’t have the political will to keep them there we’re sure not sending them back — then why not just bring them home?

  9. legion says:

    James,
    My understanding (and I admit not to have paid terribly close attention to the proposals prior to the elections, since they had zero chance of ever going anywhere) is that a significant chunk of our combat capability would be moved out of the actual ‘combat zone’ of Iraq, which would itself be turned back over to the Iraqi forces for day-to-day ops. Our forces would remain ‘semi-forward-deployed’ somewhere like Kuwait, Turkey, Diego Garcia, wherever, to be used, not just in Iraq, but wherever they might be needed in the region. If, say, we had some idea of where bin Laden was in Pakistan, or if a major Taliban formation was found in Afghanistan, or we spotted a major AQ training site in Africa, we could zap it without having to disengage our forces from their (current) day-to-day responsibilities in Iraq.

    If that’s not accurate, I apologize, but the specific phrase ‘re-invasion’ is one I had not noticed until Friedman recently used it to describe what we have to do _now_ to secure Iraq and/or Afghanistan…