Rumsfeld: Fair and Balanced

Rumsfeld: Fair and Balanced

By Tom Mahnken

Journalists have produced many caricatures of Donald Rumsfeld, but no portraits. Until now, that is. Bradley Graham’s By His Own Rules (PublicAffairs) offers a nuanced portrayal of the former defense secretary that is likely to serve as the definitive work for years to come. Those who dislike Rumsfeld will find plenty to stoke their anger; those who admire him much that is praiseworthy. Those few with an open mind will learn a great deal about the man, his gifts and his flaws.

The product of years of thorough research, Graham’s book is journalism at its best. The anonymous "former senior defense official" makes a few appearances in the book’s eight hundred pages, but as a rule he cites his sources by name, and everything contained in quotation marks is a direct quote.  He presents the story, but ultimately gives the reader the opportunity to make his own judgments.

By His Own Rules busts many of the stereotypes of Rumsfeld.  My top three:

  1. Rumsfeld the Micromanager. Well, sometimes. By His Own Rules paints a complex picture of Rumsfeld as the head of the Defense Department. His probing, sometimes abrasive style have been chronicled elsewhere. The book shows Rumsfeld playing an active, sometimes hyperactive, role in examining and revising processes, including those that had traditionally been the purview of the military leadership, including senior officer assignments and the deployment of forces. But Graham also shows that on substance, Rumsfeld often deferred to military leaders. On sensitive matters such as contingency planning, he tended to work directly with combatant commanders and exclude his own staff. Too often he deferred to military leaders when he should have questioned them and scolded them when he should have held them accountable.
  2. Rumsfeld the Decisive. More often, Rumsfeld the ponderer. As Graham puts it, "Rumsfeld was at its best – and seemingly most comfortable – when he was questioning things.  Decisions came harder."  Although Rumsfeld made the transformation of the U.S. armed forces a top priority, he proved reluctant to cancel any major weapon systems.  In the end, he only cancelled two: the Crusader artillery system and the Comanche helicopter. Rumsfeld’s aides had to push hard to get him to cancel the Crusader, a heavy, expensive legacy of the Cold War that was the poster child for everything Rumsfeld opposed. And it was the Army that put the Comanche on the chopping block. Similarly, Graham reports that it was Rumsfeld’s deputy, Gordon England, who pushed for a rapid response in the wake of Hurricaine Katrina, while Rumsfeld temporized.
  3. Rumsfeld the Neocon. No, Rumsfeld the traditional conservative.  As Graham shows, Rumsfeld was, as Gerald Ford’s Chief of Staff and Defense Secretary, and as George W. Bush’s Defense Secretary, a conservative of the traditional variety. Rumsfeld was, for example, dubious of the proposition that the spread of democracy was a praiseworthy or feasible goal. 

Graham’s book also sheds light on a number of Rumsfeld’s unheralded successes. For example, he led an effort to realign the U.S. armed forces’ basing structure across the globe away from a structure optimized for the Cold War past in order to position the United States better to respond to current and future threats. And Rumsfeld, confronted with a war planning process that was cumbersome and unresponsive to strategic direction, championed the Adaptive Planning Initiative, which has led to plans that are developed more rapidly, feature more options, and benefit from greater guidance from senior leaders. 

History will render its verdict on Donald Rumsfeld’s second tenure in the Pentagon, but By His Own Rules contains mountains of evidence for both the prosecution and the defense.