If only he could show us the memo. "It's still classified, I suppose? " says Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, looking toward his assistant...

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WASHINGTON — If only he could show us the memo.

“It’s still classified, I suppose?” says Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, looking toward his assistant during a recent interview in his office.

He’s interested in sharing the memo because the memo, as he outlines it, demonstrates that his critics are utterly mistaken: He did not dash heedless and underprepared into Iraq. Rumsfeld foresaw the things that could go wrong — and wrote them up in a classically Rumsfeldian list, one brisk bullet point after another, 29 potential pitfalls in all. Then he distributed the memo at the highest levels.

“It would have been probably October of ’02, and the war was March, I think,” of the following year, Rumsfeld explains. “I sat down, and I said, ‘What are all the things that one has to anticipate could be a problem?’ And circulated it and read it to the president — sent it to the president. Gave it to the people in the department, and they planned against those things.”

At the time he wrote the memo, dated Oct. 15, 2002, Congress had recently voted to give President Bush complete authority to invade Iraq and topple Saddam Hussein. A White House spokesman had just confirmed that invasion plans were on Bush’s desk — detailed plans, we now know, that Rumsfeld had been shaping for much of the previous year.

So what was in the memo? Dire scenarios ranging from disasters that did not happen, such as chemical warfare and house-to-house combat with Saddam’s troops in Baghdad, to bad things that have indeed come to pass, such as ethnic strife among Iraq’s factions and the successful exploitation of the war as a public-relations vehicle for the enemies of the U.S.

Why did Rumsfeld write that memo, and why is he flagging it now?

“Rumsfeld’s Rules”

If the point of the memo was to halt the train of events at the last moment, then it was too little too late. One of “Rumsfeld’s Rules,” the booklet of maxims and tenets he has coined and updated through his lifetime in management and government, notes that “it is easier to get into something than to get out of it.” The time to stop an idea is before it gets moving.

And if his purpose was to spur adequate thinking and preparation for the complexity of the Iraq mission, he failed. Military experts and strategic thinkers differ over whether the insurgency in Iraq can be quelled and a legitimate government stabilized on a timeline and a budget that the American people will support.

Rumsfeld’s own advisory think tank, the Defense Science Board, took a long look at this issue last year and concluded that the architects of the Iraq war — led by Rumsfeld — lacked necessary knowledge of Iraq and its people, and that they failed to factor in well-known lessons of history.

The idea may not be immediately obvious to Americans — that Donald Rumsfeld, the confident, competent “Rumstud” of the Iraq invasion briefing room, has held something back from the war effort. He was, after all, the public face of “shock and awe.”

He dominated news briefings and congressional hearings. Behind the scenes, Rumsfeld and his civilian staff bulldozed generals and smashed rival bureaucracies in the planning and execution of the invasion.

“I don’t think he ever really had his heart in it,” says William Kristol, editor of the Weekly Standard and a leading proponent of the Iraq war.

The crux of the complaint against the secretary is this: Whenever Rumsfeld has faced a choice between doing more in Iraq or doing less, he has done less. When, during the pre-invasion planning, the State Department sent a team of Iraq experts to the Pentagon to help prepare a major reconstruction effort for the aftermath, Rumsfeld turned some of them away.

As a result, “there was simply no plan, other than humanitarian assistance and a few other things like protection of oil and so forth, with regard to postwar Iraq,” retired Col. Lawrence Wilkerson, chief of staff to former secretary of state Colin Powell, explained in a recent speech.

When Army generals called for more troops to occupy the soon-to-be-leaderless country, Rumsfeld pushed for fewer. He cut the time for training National Guard units, including the ones that wound up photographing themselves with naked prisoners at Abu Ghraib prison. (He twice offered his resignation when the prison scandal broke. Bush declined.) He blessed plans to begin pulling the invasion force out of Iraq almost as quickly as it went in.

The thread running through all these decisions is Rumsfeld’s steady resistance to a long, troop-intensive effort in Iraq. A big part of his job, he explained that day in his office, is to “balance” the resources being poured into Iraq against necessary investments in a transformed, high-tech military force of the future.

When senators tell Rumsfeld, as they did again in September, that the U.S. should have enough troops on the border between Iraq and Syria to cut off the flow of money and manpower to the anti-U.S. insurgency, one can imagine the secretary running through the math. Today’s highly skilled volunteer troops don’t come as cheaply as the draft-age cannon fodder of wars gone by.

With pay, training and benefits, each soldier or Marine sent to secure that border would mean an annual debit of up to $100,000 in defense budgets for years to come. Ten thousand soldiers equals $1 billion. Not counting their guns, ammo, food, uniforms, armor, vehicles.

Which may be why Rumsfeld’s military, as of late September, had assigned just 1,000 Marines to cover the western half of the 376-mile border with Syria.

Doubts about Rumsfeld’s priorities have been widespread in Iraq almost from the beginning. Soldiers wondered why they were doing heavy-armor fighting in unarmored trucks. Commanders scratched their heads when Rumsfeld insisted, at a Pentagon news briefing in 2003, that the war outside their windows wasn’t “anything like a guerrilla war or an organized resistance.” Kurdish leaders, concerned about a Pentagon cut-and-run, declined to disband their ethnic militias.

Such questions took root in Washington a bit later, however. A turning point came in September 2004, with a pair of columns written by the well-sourced conservative Robert Novak. Many pro-war insiders believed that Rumsfeld was the origin of Novak’s startling declaration that “inside the Bush administration policymaking apparatus, there is a strong feeling that U.S. troops must leave Iraq next year. This determination is not predicated on success in implanting Iraqi democracy and internal stability. Rather, the officials are saying, Ready or not, here we go.”

Bush quickly shot down the trial balloon, but Novak stood fast.

West Point military historian Frederick Kagan soon published a scathing assessment of Rumsfeld’s war leadership. A supporter of the decision to invade Iraq, Kagan was appalled that Rumsfeld had not shifted his fabled intensity from visions of future warfare to the burgeoning war of today.

“The secretary of defense simply chose to prioritize preparing America’s military for future conventional conflict rather than for the current mission,” Kagan wrote in Kristol’s magazine.

The venerable conservative magazine National Review, while critical of Rumsfeld for underestimating the “magnitude of the task that rebuilding and occupying Iraq would present,” opened its pages to rebuttals of Kristol’s journal. Victor Davis Hanson of the Hoover Institution chalked up America’s troubles in Iraq to the huge cuts in active-duty troops that were begun by the first President Bush and continued under President Clinton.

Others praised Rumsfeld’s creativity in squeezing the most from existing troop levels by moving uniformed soldiers and officers out of jobs that civilians could fill instead.

At 73, Rumsfeld is the oldest person ever to run the Pentagon, having also been the youngest when he was appointed for his first tour in 1975. Only two secretaries of defense have served longer — Robert McNamara in the 1960s and Casper Weinberger in the 1980s — and Rumsfeld shows no sign of flagging.

If only he could have had the war he wanted, instead of the war he got. Rumsfeld hoped and intended that Iraq would be a proving ground for his theories about a new era of warfare — fast, light, “agile,” high-tech and overwhelming. Instead, Iraq is an old-fashioned war, hot and dusty, of foot soldiers, fortified camps, checkpoints and armor.

The CIA concluded by June 2003 that the U.S. was facing a “classic insurgency,” but Rumsfeld specifically denied it until he was publicly corrected by his able commander, Army Lt. Gen. John Abizaid.

Perhaps this is understandable, because the implications of the insurgency — namely, a long, expensive military and political commitment — were potentially ruinous for Rumsfeld’s larger, futuristic agenda. But the reluctance of the man at the top of the Pentagon to come to grips with the reality on the ground had an impact, according to retired Army Gen. Barry McCaffrey, who surveyed Iraq last summer and reported on his findings to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

McCaffrey did not mention the secretary of defense by name in his report. But his terse, grim recounting of America’s first 22 months in Iraq led directly to Rumsfeld’s door.

“The enterprise was badly launched,” McCaffrey wrote. The U.S. invasion “left a nation without an operational State.” Rumsfeld’s “overwhelmed, under-resourced” appointees were feckless in filling that void. A year passed before the U.S. began serious and effective training of new security forces for Iraq — indeed, the United States transferred sovereignty to a provisional Iraqi government in June 2004 without any competent Iraqi military or police units to defend that government.

Counterinsurgency is a matter of turning on the air conditioning and keeping it on. Of guaranteeing Iraqis that they can take a government job without fear that their children will be kidnapped. It is a question not just of sweeping the insurgents from Samarra or Fallujah or Ramadi, but of keeping such cities safe for the long run.

The average counterinsurgency effort lasts nine years, Iraq commander Gen. George Casey informed Congress, “and there’s no reason that we should believe that the insurgency in Iraq will take any less time to deal with.”

McCaffrey concluded after his visit that the U.S. Army and Marine Corps have indeed landed on the right strategy and are finally making progress. Credit, he said, belongs to the “superb” senior generals who took over after the chaotic first months, and to the soldiers and Marines making up “the most competent and battle-wise force in our nation’s history.”

McCaffrey’s silence concerning civilian leadership of the Pentagon spoke volumes. Rumsfeld’s support continues to dwindle. He has alienated a fair percentage of America’s officer corps, though few of them will say so on the record.

Why Rumsfeld, one of the smartest, most energetic and most forceful men to serve as secretary of defense, has reached this point is one of the deep riddles of today’s Washington.

Buoyed by early successes of Special Ops forces and satellite-guided bombs in Afghanistan, Rumsfeld turned the run-up to Iraq into a transformation workshop. The Pentagon already had a plan for the possible toppling of Saddam Hussein; it was completely remade under Rumsfeld’s steady pressure.

Rumsfeld cut the troop strength in the invasion plan by more than half, and cut the deployment time by months. Instead of a bombing phase led by the Air Force and Navy, followed by a ground-war phase of soldiers and Marines, the secretary pushed for a truly joint operation, all branches of the military working together on a blitz to Baghdad.

“Vindication … and downfall”

Combining the audacity of Grant at Vicksburg with a degree of speed and precision never before seen on Earth, the invasion of Iraq “was the utter vindication of Rumsfeld’s transformation,” an impressed European diplomat said not long ago. “And,” he added, “also its downfall.” For there was a crack in this machinery that would be exposed if Iraq was not wrapped up quickly.

Rumsfeld spoke of this internal flaw, briefly and elliptically, during the interview in his office. He was describing the Pentagon as an Industrial Age contraption of rattling “conveyor belts” onto which huge weapons purchases and fat plans are loaded months and even years before they will come to fruition.

“To have affected it, you had to have affected it five or six years ago — or at least two or three years ago,” Rumsfeld said of the system. So his mission, as he described it, was to get his hands into the machinery and start hauling resources off some belts so he could load new projects onto others.

Rumsfeld explained that he has had to “balance risks between a war plan — an investment in something immediately — and an investment in something in the future.” This opened a small window into a very important section of his thinking.

Rumsfeld understood that as soon as the Iraq belt started rolling, it would carry resources away from his preferred investments in the future. The war he wanted was a short one, involving a relatively small force that would start heading home as soon as Saddam was chased from his palaces.

When Army generals urged him instead to load the Iraq conveyor belt with enough troops to fully occupy the country — securing captured weapons depots, patrolling borders, ensuring order — Rumsfeld saw the large fixed cost involved in recruiting and training thousands of new troops, a cost that would rattle down Pentagon belts for years to come.

It was a gamble, and one he has stuck with through round after round of raised stakes.

Of course, the irony is that the Iraq effort has been the opposite of cheap and short. Despite Rumsfeld’s best efforts, it’s a budget-buster, and one can almost hear the conveyor belts destined for his transformed tomorrow grinding to a halt, one by one.