Micro-Management in Defense: Bane or Boon

By Steve Saideman

Donald Rumsfeld and Gen. Tommy Franks in 2003. DoD photo by Helene C. Stikkel, via Wikimedia.
Donald Rumsfeld and Gen. Tommy Franks in 2003. DoD photo by Helene C. Stikkel, via Wikimedia.

In the past week I have watched the Errol Morris documentary on Donald Rumsfeld (The Unknown Known)[1] and finished reading Robert Gates’ memoir (Duty). There is much to ponder from each and certainly from comparing both experiences,[2] but I want to focus here on micro-management. Like many terms, such as imperialist or neo-liberal, micro-management has become more of a slur than a clear concept. My goal here is to examine the term as a way of thinking about the jobs of Secretaries of Defense (Ministers of Defense in most other places).

To be clear, civilian leaders should and will concern themselves with some of the details of the military organizations they manage as “war is too important to be left to the generals,” as Georges Clemenceau suggested. The questions are not if or whether but when and where. Because war is politics by other means, as Clausewitz said long ago, and because it is especially so when nuclear weapons are involved at one end of the spectrum or counter-insurgency at the other end, we need to take seriously micro-management as a reality and not just something to use when blame-casting.

The classic example is from the Cuban Missile Crisis, where President John F. Kennedy directly communicated with the fleet engaged in the quarantine of Cuba, changing their position so that the Soviet ships would not encounter the blockade as quickly. This overruled standing operating procedures for the fleet that wanted to stay beyond the range of aircraft based in Cuba, but made sense as the crisis needed more time to play out.

Turning to Rumsfeld, the documentary makes much of his “snowflakes” where he would ask, badger and push the US military to operate as he saw fit. The striking thing in the documentary was the failure to connect the dots — snowflakes -> micro-management -> bad outcomes, largely implying but not documenting the casual relationship. The books on the war do a better job: Fiasco and Cobra II in particular document how deep into the details of the invasion Rumsfeld buried himself and how that affected the war. The best example: Rumsfeld went through unit by unit which forces should participate in the invasion, reducing the overall level of Military Police quite drastically. So, when the looting broke out after Saddam Hussein fell, those best equipped and trained to deal with riots and looting were few and far between. This absence then led to Rumsfeld’s comment that “stuff happens,” and that freedom is messy. He thus denied responsibility for the mess that he helped to create, which had enduring impacts on the ability to reconstruct Iraq.

A similar tale can be applied to Afghanistan, as Rumsfeld imposed a strict limitation on the number of American troops in the early days of this operation. This “force cap” meant that efforts to attack al Qaeda, Operation Anaconda, would have to rely on Afghan militias to guard the likely avenue of escape when the Americans attacked from the other side. These militias were not so reliable, and much of al Qaeda and even Osama Bin Laden were able to escape.

So, the lesson here might be that micro-management is always bad. Yet that is not necessarily the case. There were times where Robert Gates should have gotten into the details of the operations more. Specifically, when the US surged into Afghanistan, the US Marines insisted on going to Helmand and on having their own chain of command. Both of these were mistakes as population-centric counter-insurgency, as the president ordered, meant focusing on where the Afghans resided — Kandahar — and Gates had just engaged in significant work to clean up the organization of the effort. However, Gates was reluctant to tell the Marines to behave differently, something that he eventually regretted.

On the other hand, Gates did get very directly involved in seeking vehicles that could handle improved explosive devices better. The result, MRAPs, were much better at protection the soldiers and marines, although it was not an ideal vehicle for counter-insurgency (its antennae tended to break the many cords hanging above the streets in Iraq).

So, what is the difference between good and bad micro-management? Just looking at the outcomes is easy but does not tell us when top civilians should use their “six thousand mile screwdriver.” The clue here is that Rumsfeld’s decisions tended to be focused less on achieving success and more about limiting the investment. Because casualties were a key challenge to continuing the mission, Gates’s effort on the MRAPs was aimed not towards saving money but on improving the chances of the mission’s success. Intent seems to matter a lot.

It also matters that Gates was listening to the troops on the ground and in the chain of command, whereas Rumsfeld’s micro-management efforts almost always were deaf to the concerns of those involved. It is one thing to impose one’s will on a recalcitrant military while taking into account the best advice one is getting from that military. It is another thing entirely to ignore the military’s expertise and impose one’s ideology on an operation.

The line between good and bad micro-management may be thin. It is best approached with humility rather than arrogance. Alas, Rumsfeld approached pretty much everything with arrogance, as the new documentary reminds us. Gates admits that he could have done better and that there are limits to American power. That kind of humility is probably the best starting point when one tries to figure out how deeply one must get into the details.

[1] I recommend watching it with friend with plenty of Rum drinks on hand (Rum and Rummy). It worked for me.

[2] I plan to review the Gates book at saideman.blogspot.com in the next week or so.

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