Diatribes of Jay

This is a blog of essays on public policy. It shuns ideology and applies facts, logic and math to economic, social and political problems. It has a subject-matter index, a list of recent posts, and permalinks at the ends of posts. Comments are moderated and may take time to appear. Note: Profile updated 4/7/12

05 December 2006

The Rumsfeld Memo

Donald Rumsfeld’s leaked last testament as Secretary of Defense is notable for one thing only.  It condemns him by his own hand.  To anyone with the slightest understanding of how decision making in big organizations works, it shows precisely why the War in Iraq is going so badly and why Rumsfeld had to go.

In that respect the Rumsfeld memo is not just remarkable.  It is astounding.  To understand just how astounding, consider Rumsfeld’s probable motives for writing it.

Two motives are obvious.  First, Rumsfeld apparently thought that the post-election period, then only a day away, would be a good time to re-evaluate strategy and tactics in Iraq and consider new directions.  Therefore the primary purpose of the memo was to kick-start a serious re-evaluation.  Second, as bureaucratic-infighter-in-chief, Rumsfeld must have sensed that his own head might be on the block.  Therefore a secondary purpose of the memo was to show his boss (and perhaps posterity) how good a job Rumsfeld was doing.

How well did the memo accomplish these tasks?  It contains not a single piece of analysis and not a single recommendation.  It is a laundry list of possible things to do, in apparently random order.  It contains virtually every conceivable option, including (albeit far down the list) partitioning Iraq.  If you don’t believe this characterization, read it yourself.  It’s a short document.

The memo is a twelve-year old child crying “See.  Aren’t I smart?  I’ve thought of everything!”  Or it is the ultimate cover-your-ass memo by the ultimate bureaucratic infighter.  Whatever else it may be, it is not the product of a man who knows how to make decisions and is willing to put them on record and take responsibility for them.

Even if Bob Woodward had not so meticulously characterized Rumsfeld’s “leadership” style in his book State of Denial, the memo alone would reveal it.  Rumsfeld is the ultimate buck-passer and responsibility dodger.  He used consummate bureaucratic skill to make sure that all lines of authority for the war, related intelligence, and military affairs led through his office.  Then he refused to exercise that authority, as least in any way that could be traced to his hand.

No wonder Rumsfeld drove our generals crazy.  Here were men trained their whole lives to make tough decisions under fire.  Here were men used to speaking their minds, then taking orders and executing them.  Here were men for whom decisiveness was everything, for they knew that others’ lives would depend on it.  Yet they were asked to accept a style of leadership in which the “leader” refused to make decisions until he could be sure that responsibility for them would not be his.  Rumsfeld “led” like some Socratic law professor, asking his underlings random questions by means of his “snowflake” memos and refusing to answer questions himself.

To understand just how dysfunctional that style of leadership is—especially in the Pentagon—we must factor in the president’s own leadership style.  It is now self-evident to anyone who can read that the president is no micromanager.  This writer has described him as a coach- or cheerleader-in-chief.  If he makes decisions at all, he does so only at the highest levels of abstraction: “Let’s remove Saddam” or “Let’s make Iraq a democracy.”  At best, he is like a board of directors, setting broad policy goals or “targets” for action and leaving strategy, tactics, execution and details to his underlings.  What good is that kind of “leadership” if underlings refuse to make decisions?

Imagine that you sat on the board of directors of a multinational company.  The board asks an executive responsible for a major foreign subsidiary to explain why that subsidiary has lost money for three years and the losses are increasing, and to offer a plan for success.  In response, the executive produces a Rumsfeldian memo, listing all conceivable courses of action, without analysis or recommendation.

What would you do?  Most directors would use the opportunity to fire the executive and seek new leadership, exactly as the president did.

Yet tragedy lurks in what might otherwise seem an hilarious comedy of errors.  We have the brightest, best educated, and best trained military leaders in the world. The generals who sit in the Pentagon represent centuries, if not millennia, of military art, science, education, experience and expertise. Yet their collective wisdom and judgment—all that raw brainpower—Rumsfeld reduced to a random list of options that most casual observers who read newspapers regularly could have produced.

The end result of Rumsfeld’s memo was to abandon the collective wisdom of millennia for the experience and judgment of a single man derived from questionable service in the Texas Air National Guard.  If you want to understand why Iraq has been a fiasco, you need look no further than that.

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