The war Donald Rumsfeld won

Donald Rumsfeld.
Donald Rumsfeld. Illustrated | Getty Images, iStock

Donald Rumsfeld, who died on Wednesday at the age of 88, was a foreign policy tough guy. In the months following the 9/11 attacks, everyone in the Bush White House — and in Congress, and the media — seemed like a tough guy. But that closing of ranks in the wake of a national trauma obscures the real contours of debate among conservatives back then — and today.

On one side of the Bush administration, there were the power-politics hawks — Defense Secretary Rumsfeld and Vice President Dick Cheney, along with key members of their staffs in the Pentagon and the White House. They believed that the United States needed to throw its weight around, using the latest military technology together with a light footprint of ground troops to project American power around the globe. Doing so would be good because it's good for America and the world when the U.S. is strong, imposing order at the barrel of a gun. And the reverse was true as well: Bad things happen when we let chaos fester and bad actors plan and execute mischief. That's what had happened with Al Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan — and with Saddam Hussein in Iraq. Both were points of weakness in America's global hegemony that required a muscular response.

On the other side of the Bush administration were the moralists. At their head in the administration was Paul Wolfowitz. His arguments carried considerable weight with Secretary of State Colin Powell, National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice, and eventually with President Bush himself. Those arguments, which also echoed through the pages of Bill Kristol's Weekly Standard magazine and among the many Democrats who supported the Iraq invasion, were rooted in America's historic mission to face down dictators and spread democracy around the globe. If the Rumsfeld-Cheney position was about power projection, Wolfowitz's was about democracy projection, potentially throughout the whole Middle East.

Of course things didn't turn out the way any of the major players had hoped. As euphoria surrounding the initial invasion gave way to stories of a bloody insurgency and missing weapons of mass destruction, Bush pivoted entirely to the Wolfowitz position. Now the war was all about "ending tyranny in our world." But with Bush's "surge" (begun only once Rumsfeld had resigned as defense secretary in late 2006), Barack Obama's troop withdrawal, the outbreak of a horrifically violent civil war in neighboring Syria, the rise of the Islamic State, and the return of American troops to fight ISIS' caliphate, that rationale eventually fell away, too.

Today, Republican foreign policy thinking oscillates between two positions: on one side, "realism and restraint" that favors America pulling back from its overseas military commitments in the Greater Middle East, Europe, and perhaps elsewhere; on the other, raw power projection and gratuitous displays of muscle flexing abroad with little or no democracy promotion attempted or assumed. Donald Trump wavered uneasily between these extremes — showing, perhaps, that it's possible to unite them. But at no point did he show the slightest inclination to take up the Wolfowitz project of spreading democracy throughout the world. Trump's would-be successors look likely to follow in his footsteps in that as in everything else.

This leaves the Democrats as the only party interested in using military force for explicitly moral ends. And it means that Donald Rumsfeld's devotion to the global projection of American power for its own sake appears to have won the day on the right.

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