FP Book Club: Donald Rumsfeld’s ‘Known and Unknown’
An FP discussion on the controversial former defense secretary's long-awaited memoirs.
Not only is Donald Rumsfeld one of the most reviled — and most intensely defended — defense secretaries of all time, but he has also become a stand-in for some of the signature security debacles of the Bush era. Guantánamo. Abu Ghraib. The Iraq invasion. So it’s no surprise people would have a lot to say about his new and surprisingly intimate memoirs, Known and Unknown — to date the only insider account of Bush’s foreign policy written by someone at such a high level. We went to a bevy of experts and writers to get the full scoop on what Rumsfeld means now — and what the new book doesn’t say.
Bradley Graham: Does Rumsfeld’s Book Come Years Too Late?
Neither Donald Rumsfeld nor I seem capable of writing about his life in fewer than 800 pages. That said, we do have rather different perspectives on how much responsibility he should bear for all that went wrong on his watch at the Pentagon.
He does deserve credit at least for doing a lot of homework for this book and, with a team of half-a-dozen assistants, writing a serious autobiography. Although containing no bombshell disclosures about the Bush administration’s internal deliberations, the memoir does constitute a substantive critique and adds fresh details, particularly about what Rumsfeld was thinking, saying, and doing, and why. Further, the trove of previously classified documents and private memos that he has promised to release on his website should be helpful to historians, not to mention the just-curious.
No doubt Rumsfeld loyalists will applaud his book for its forceful defense of the Iraq war and its critical portrayals of Colin Powell, Condoleezza Rice, and L. Paul Bremer III. But Rumsfeld’s legion of detractors will again be frustrated and angered by the former defense secretary’s continued refusal to acknowledge more personal responsibility for the war’s mismanagement, the mistreatment of detainees in U.S. custody, and the infighting that plagued the Bush administration.
Rumsfeld is not the first to contend that the Iraq conflict would have ended much sooner had power been passed quickly to an interim Iraqi authority, as Pentagon officials had proposed. This thesis is popular among those who pushed for a rapid transfer and for Iraqi exiles to take some governing positions early. But there’s little way of knowing whether an interim authority would have been more successful at forestalling or squashing the insurgency, or conversely would have led to problems even worse than those that plagued Bremer’s Coalition Provisional Authority.
Rumsfeld also complains about going to war with bad information. He chides the CIA for being overconfident about Iraq’s possession of weapons of mass destruction and for failing to assess the ability of the Fedayeen and foreign jihadists to combat U.S. forces. But particularly given his own frequent warnings over the years about overlooking improbable scenarios, he doesn’t take much responsibility for having dismissed the notion before the invasion that Saddam Hussein wasn’t lying and didn’t actually have weapons of mass destruction (WMD) stockpiles.
Rumsfeld also contends that the accounts of him as being intolerant and insensitive are overblown. He insists that he welcomed dissent and routinely deferred to those on the battlefield on decisions ranging from troop levels to how to pursue insurgents. “Indeed, I thought that a more accurate criticism would have been that I too often deferred to the views, opinions, and decisions of the generals who were in charge,” he writes.
I actually agree that at times he was too willing to accept what his commanders were telling him. But to some extent, they simply got tired of arguing with him — or were cowed.
Among the other things I wish he had explained was how a non-ideologue like him ended up surrounded in office with neoconservatives. There is no discussion in the book of the role that neoconservatives played on his staff.
The hardest part of the memoir for Rumsfeld to write, I’m told, was the long section on detainees. He remains quite emotional on the subject of Abu Ghraib, though I was surprised he does not go beyond the prison scandal to discuss the large number of other detainee mistreatment cases that emerged. Nor does he address the judgments of James Schlesinger and others that he failed to articulate a clear policy on the handling of detainees, once the old absolute about adhering to the Geneva Conventions was blurred.
Rumsfeld deals at some length in the book with process. He has a low opinion of the way Rice managed the National Security Council, and he thinks Bush should have exerted a stronger hand in resolving differences among the principals. Curiously, though, he doesn’t have much to say about Dick Cheney’s role in the process or about his frequent contacts with the former vice president.
Rumsfeld also has several complaints about message. He contends it was a mistake for the administration, after finding no WMDs in Iraq, to shift to speaking more about implanting democracy as a rationale for the war. “Rice seemed to be the one top advisor who spoke that way,” he writes, “but it was not clear to me whether she was encouraging the President to use rhetoric about democracy or whether it was originating with the President.”
And he takes issue with how the administration framed the nature of the global war it was fighting. Instead of calling it a “war on terror,” with the enemy being some vague sort of evildoers, he argues that the focus should have been placed on the ideological nature of Islamist extremists. “We ought to have more precisely labeled our enemies as violent Islamists,” he writes in the final chapter.
The son of a schoolteacher, Rumsfeld has long been a stickler for precise language. And while in office, he did press Bush to drop the “war on terror” slogan — but lost. One of the paradoxes about Rumsfeld’s troubled time as defense secretary is how someone so attuned to message, with such practiced communication skills and a reputation for deft bureaucratic maneuvering, could have ended up with so polarizing and disparaged an image.
He clearly feels that Powell’s State Department group, through background conversations with journalists and authors, did better at shaping the what-went-wrong narrative — and did so at Rumsfeld’s expense. Here’s a question then just to get our book club discussion going: If Rumsfeld had tried harder while in office to tell his side of the story, as it now appears in his book, would it have made much of a difference?
Bradley Graham is a former Pentagon reporter at the Washington Post and author of By His Own Rules: The Ambitions, Successes, and Ultimate Failures of Donald Rumsfeld.
Peter Baker: Rumsfeld’s Secret Tensions With Bush
It must be daunting enough to write an 800-page memoir, but to do so after your life has already been chronicled by someone of Brad Graham’s caliber must be doubly so. The only thing I can imagine being more daunting is to follow Brad Graham in a discussion of the subject he knows so well.
But here goes. The early reviews of Donald Rumsfeld’s new book have focused on the score-settling elements, no surprise in Washington where that is a time-honored ritual of autobiographies. The former defense secretary details the issues he had with Colin Powell, Condoleezza Rice, George Tenet, and most especially L. Paul Bremer III, elaborating on stress points that have been known for years.
More interesting, though, was Rumsfeld’s complicated relationship with President George W. Bush, the man who recruited the nation’s youngest defense secretary to become its oldest as well, only to push him out six years later amid a pair of overseas wars. Where Rumsfeld’s clashes with other players on the Bush national security team were more or less common knowledge, less evident until now were the tensions with his commander in chief.
Rumsfeld is careful to write about Bush with respect and, at times, admiration — and he expresses absolutely no resentment about being forced out by the president after the 2006 midterm elections that handed Congress over to Democrats. He credits Bush with protecting the country after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and recounts choking up in the Oval Office when Bush expressed concern over Rumsfeld’s son, Nick, who was battling drug addiction at the time.
More broadly, Rumsfeld defends the president against the public caricature. “I found him to be unlike the picture the press was drawing of him as uncurious and something of a slacker,” he writes of his first substantive meeting with Bush in 1999 before he was elected president. “He asked serious questions, was self-confident, and had a command of the important issues.”
But Rumsfeld also makes clear that he differed with Bush on some pretty critical issues. He had little interest in the “freedom agenda” espoused by Bush. He writes that Bush should have found ways of asking Americans to share in the burdens of the war on terror by weaning off foreign oil or volunteering for military or civilian duty. And for that matter, he does not like the term “war on terror,” arguing that Bush should have framed it more forthrightly as a struggle against Islamist extremists.
Perhaps most importantly, he faults Bush, at least implicitly, for a dysfunctional National Security Council policymaking process that pitted departments and major figures against each other and created a confusing chain of command for Iraq under Bremer. “NSC meetings with the president,” he writes, “did not always end with clear conclusions and instructions.”
The roots of all this make it more interesting. Rumsfeld is open about his fractious relationship with Bush’s father, going back to their days in the Ford administration. As defense secretary the first time, Rumsfeld was blamed for pushing George H.W. Bush into a job, CIA director, that would remove him as a possible rival for the Republican vice presidential nomination in 1976.
Rumsfeld recounts the episode in the book and all but accuses the elder President Bush of lying about what happened. As a condition of confirmation to the CIA job, Senate Democrats insisted that Bush forswear joining the ticket in 1976. Rumsfeld quotes Bush saying he resisted only to have President Gerald R. Ford accept the demand. But Rumsfeld cites Ford’s own autobiography as well as a letter he solicited from the former president in 1989 stating otherwise. “It was George Bush’s decision to agree not to accept any Vice Presidential nomination,” Ford wrote.
Ancient history, of course, but for the fact that the son of Rumsfeld’s rival would later recruit him back to the cabinet. “It was no secret to Governor Bush that his father’s relationship with me lacked warmth,” Rumsfeld writes, with understatement. He adds, “I thought it spoke well of him that he was interested in meeting me himself to draw his own conclusions.”
Rumsfeld’s gentle treatment of his disagreements with Bush mirrors the former president’s approach in his own recent memoir, Decision Points. In that book, Bush offered a couple criticisms of his defense secretary. He wrote that “Don frustrated me with his abruptness toward military leaders and members of my staff” and that Rumsfeld mishandled the retirement of General Eric Shinseki, who had warned of the need for more troops in Iraq. Bush “felt blindsided” that he had not been shown pictures of abuse at Abu Ghraib before the day they were aired on television.
But Bush rejected Rumsfeld’s resignation after Abu Ghraib not once but twice, saying that “I didn’t blame him” for the abuse and “didn’t want to turn him into a scapegoat.” He depicted Rumsfeld as “a decent and caring man” who “had valuable experience and shared my view of the war on terror as a long-term ideological struggle.” He too told the story of the emotional Oval Office moment over Rumsfeld’s son, though in his recollection he did not specifically ask about Nick and the emotions burst out after a casual how’s-the-family question.
Either way, Bush and Rumsfeld both skated gingerly around the decision to replace the Pentagon chief in 2006, perhaps unwilling to pick at the scab. Bush wrote simply that “change was needed” without saying what he thought Rumsfeld had done wrong, if anything. Rumsfeld cites “declining public support for the Iraq war and for the administration” and the worry that a Democratic Congress would summon him for politically motivated testimony, causing distractions for the president.
Those looking for mea culpas in Known and Unknown over the handling of Iraq or Afghanistan or Abu Ghraib will no doubt be disappointed. But the book places the reader in Rumsfeld’s chair and is a serious stab at telling the history of a consequential period in America through the eyes of one of its most consequential players. It will be an important addition to the history of our time.
All of which brings us around to Brad’s incisive question — would it have made a difference if Rumsfeld had done more to tell his side of the story much earlier? Yes, on some level. For all his media savvy, Rumsfeld lost control of his own image as the war went south. At the same time, Peter Wehner, a former Bush White House aide, liked to say that when it came to Iraq what they had was not a communications problem but a facts-on-the-ground problem.
Four years later, the facts on the ground have improved, after enormous cost to all involved. That was a price Don Rumsfeld says he was prepared to pay.
Peter Baker is a White House correspondent for the New York Times and a public policy scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center for International Scholars, where he is working on a book about the Bush presidency.
Thomas E. Ricks: The Two Things Rumsfeld and I Agree On
I think Donald Rumsfeld was the worst defense secretary ever, and that I’ve written a whole book about the American military fiasco in Iraq 2003-06 in which he played a major role. So rather than review the arguments against him, I thought it might be more interesting to write about a couple of places in his book where I actually agree with him.
Most notably, I think that the former defense secretary is correct to say that it wasn’t just the Bush administration that screwed up in Iraq, and that the U.S. military also must be assigned a big share of the blame. He is particularly interesting on the decision during the summer of 2003 to put Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez in charge of the U.S. military in Iraq, a move he now calls “inexplicable.” He continues:
Whatever the rationale behind the decision, it later became clear that Sanchez had been put in a terrible position. The [assignment] … called for a senior military official with far more experience. That the Army leadership, with the agreement or acquiescence of CENTCOM and the Joint Staff, slotted him for the top command post was a serious misassessment….
I do not recall being made aware of the Army’s decision to move General Sanchez into the top position…. To my recollection, the chief of staff of the Army and CENTCOM leadership did not bring the relevant plans to my attention.
I am not one who thinks that if only the Army had been given more troops in Iraq, everything would have worked out more or less OK. Given the lousy planning and poor leadership displayed, I think that if you had another 100,000 U.S. soldiers, you would have had more problems of the sort we saw, with the Army flailing around conducting huge, unproductive, disruptive “sweeps” and the subsequent widespread abuse of detainees. That didn’t happen because of lack of troops, but because commanders did not know what to do with the troops they had, especially when it came to interacting with Iraqis.
Another point Rumsfeld is right about is that that he should have stepped down after the Abu Ghraib scandal emerged in 2004. “More than anything else I have failed to do, and even amid my pride in the many important things we did accomplish, I regret that I did not leave at that point.” After that point, he was indeed damaged goods.
Both his correct observations point to a larger flaw in the man, one that generally is not understood by people who only saw him on television. That is, as defense secretary, he was extraordinarily passive. He blustered a lot, but in actually making decisions, especially about personnel picks, he was slow to a fault. Just look at those paragraphs above about finding out that Gen. Sanchez was being put in charge in Iraq. Kind of makes you wonder just who was holding the top job at the Pentagon, and why he wasn’t more proactively curious about major decisions being made about Iraq.
Likewise, throughout 2006, as central Iraq was engaged in a bloody civil war and most of Baghdad was ethnically cleansed, Rumsfeld dithered. He tells us now that he was worried about Generals John Abizaid and George Casey, the two top commanders in the war, but did he do anything about them? Nope. (He argues in the book that things were improving in Iraq because the Anbar Awakening got underway late that year, but that was no thanks to him, nor anyone else above the rank of brigadier general at the time, and there is no evidence that the province’s awakening would have been sustained without the major policy changes — most notably General Petraeus’s decision to put the Sunni insurgency on the American payroll — that followed after Rumsfeld, Abizaid, and Casey were booted.)
Rumsfeld, in retrospect, embodied the opposite of the old Teddy Roosevelt maxim: He spoke loudly and carried a small stick. He continues to do that in this strikingly dull book, which might better be called Not My Fault. Here’s my scorecard of events and who he blames:
Tora Bora and bin Laden’s escape Gen. Tommy Franks, maybe CIA
No WMD in Iraq? Well, Colin Powell gave the U.N. speech
Lousy postwar planning for Iraq Structure of U.S. government
Iraq problems, mid-2003 Gen. David McKiernan
Iraq problems, 2003-04 L. Paul Bremer
Iraq problems, 2004-05 Condi Rice
Iraq problems, 2006 Rice, Gen. John Abizaid, Gen. George Casey
Critical media coverage throughout Richard Armitage
To me, one proof of Rumsfeld’s flaws is that not long after he left, the situation in Iraq turned around and Afghanistan was no longer neglected. Robert Gates arguably has been tougher on the military than was Rumsfeld, and certainly has fired more people. More importantly, he asks better questions. But he speaks softly and acts quickly, and that has given a relieved military the sense that it is being led by an adult.
Kori Schake: Rumsfeld Was the Iago to Bush’s Othello
Cross-posted at Shadow Government
I had been hoping Donald Rumsfeld’s memoir would fall like the proverbial tree in the forest, allowing conservatives to focus on the problems of today. But supportive coverage in the Wall Street Journal suggests the former defense secretary’s revisionist “slice of history” is gaining credence and needs to be rebutted. Reading the Rumsfeld memoir was like watching the 2003 documentary about Robert McNamara: Both men are still so convinced they were superior that they are incapable of understanding just how damaging they were. But there should be no doubt that Donald Rumsfeld was the self-aggrandizing Iago to the president’s Othello in the Bush administration.
Rumsfeld criticizes the consensus-building approach of Condoleezza Rice as national security advisor, and he’s right that the administration attempted to operate collegially long after it was apparent that wasn’t working. Yet it never occurs to him this could be one of his “unknown unknowns” and that the national security advisor was carrying out the president’s instructions. And he neglects to acknowledge that approach was unsuccessful because he himself would repudiate agreements reached, even after meetings at which the president presided. No decision was ever final unless it was the position taken by Rumsfeld. The Executive Steering Group on Iraq he maligns was established to supervise DOD implementation of agreed policies because the White House lost confidence Secretary Rumsfeld would carry them out. Even in the ESG, DOD was routinely represented by people who claimed no knowledge of agreed policy or professed themselves powerless to implement it because Rumsfeld disagreed.
Beyond throwing sand in the gears of interagency cooperation, Rumsfeld just wasn’t a very good secretary of defense. The secretary’s paramount responsibility in wartime is to translate the president’s political objectives into military plans. Bush’s objectives for Iraq were clear: regime change, control of nuclear weapons. A military plan that bypasses Iraq’s cities and has no dedicated plans or forces for WMD control is poorly aligned with those goals, and that was nobody’s job but Donald Rumsfeld’s. Rumsfeld spent his time challenging individual units assigned in the force flow — work that majors should be doing — instead of concentrating on the work that only the secretary can do.
By treating the military leadership as an impediment rather than the chieftains of a very successful organization, he unnecessarily alienated an important constituency for any president, especially in wartime. Moreover, he incurred an enormous amount of risk with the “rolling start” plan he spurred CENTCOM into adopting, without giving the president a full appreciation for the costs and benefits of that or other approaches. Military leaders typically want a wide margin of error in campaign plans, because they have a rich appreciation for how much can go wrong, how many elements come into play in unexpected ways. In his determination to show that agility had overcome quantity, Rumsfeld accepted an enormous amount of risk to achieve the president’s goals. When military leaders tried to draw attention to the masked risk or increase force levels to reduce it, they were excoriated. This does not just apply to the Iraq war, either: Chief of Staff of the Army Eric Shinseki was vilified by Rumsfeld as early as August of 2001 for questioning the intellectual honestly of the QDR that would have cut two divisions from the Army.
And let us speak of command climate. Rumsfeld defends his constraints on the size of the force in Iraq by claiming the military didn’t ask for more. That may well be true, but this was more than two years into Rumsfeld’s tenure, in which he had promoted officers to top positions because they shared his vision of a transformation of warfare in which the judgment of ground combat officers was considered “industrial age thinking.” After the punitive treatment of Shinseki, and promotion to top positions of “pliant” (James Kitfield’s term) generals, the military might be forgiven thinking the civilian leadership didn’t want to hear it. It is the civilians’ prerogative to determine what resources to commit to wars, and the military believed they were operating within established constraints. That doesn’t excuse military leaders not asking for what they needed to win the war, but it also doesn’t exonerate Rumsfeld from creating an environment hostile to any disagreement with his well-known views.
His “snowflakes” — the personal queries from the secretary that came in abundant blizzards — were a terrible way to manage a large organization. They give staff the impression that the issue at hand is of paramount importance to the secretary, causing major diversions of resources. For example, in the month before the start of the Iraq war, Rumsfeld sent a snowflake to the director of warplans in the Joint Staff asking why we needed a Joint Strategic Capabilities Plan — a link in flow of plans that addresses apportionment of forces among competing demands. What the secretary was likely demanding, in his abrasive way, was an explanation of the function of the document. No one in either the civilian or military chain leading to Rumsfeld could give the J-7 any idea what the secretary actually wanted, so the staff had to divert attention from refining the Iraq war plans to build a 60-slide briefing justifying continued existence of the JSCP. Rumsfeld threw them out of his office when they came to deliver it, claiming to have no idea why they were wasting his time with the issue. Good executives establish clear priorities for an organization; Rumsfeld ran DOD with scattershot directives that kept everyone off balance.
His ability to cleverly redirect attention to the failures of others does not get Donald Rumsfeld off the hook for having served the president and the country poorly. Conservatives need to repudiate the profligacy of aspects of the Bush administration if we are to regain the public trust, and that is as true for the political and military capital Donald Rumsfeld squandered as it is of the deficit spending conservatives are already at work repairing.
Kori Schake is a fellow at the Hoover Institution and holds the Distinguished Chair in International Security Studies at the United States Military Academy.
Peter Feaver: Can Rumsfeld Explain His Delay On Katrina?
I won’t pretend to have digested Rumsfeld’s entire book, including the hundreds of footnotes and documents available on his website. Using techniques pioneered by one of his deputies in an earlier book, Rumsfeld’s memoir is a serious attempt to engage his critics in an argument that has up till now been rather one-sided. Rumsfeld’s contribution might itself also be a bit one-sided, but it is a side that has not hitherto enjoyed the column-inches and cable-hours granted to his critics.
So the book contributes to an overall balanced assessment even if it is not by itself evenhanded. (After all, what memoir is?) For Rumsfeld haters wedded to an unbalanced scorched-earth critique of the administration, the memoir is likely to enrage as much as engage. For ardent Rumsfeld defenders, this book is a lifeline.
What about for the rest of us, including those of us who have an insider’s view of the strengths and weaknesses of the administration and in particular of Rumsfeld? For my part, the memoir produces mixed feelings. The sections I read most closely left me not-yet-persuaded on the key points I was hoping to see resolved.
Consider just two examples taken from the period I know best:
Katrina: Many criticisms of the administration’s handling of the Katrina disaster were unfair exaggerations, but some were warranted. One that I thought had some merit concerned the Department of Defense’s relative reluctance to step into the breach left by the inability of local authorities in Louisiana to work with FEMA. Rumsfeld is sensitive to the criticism. He documents how much the DoD did and how quickly it was done compared with the response to Hurricane Andrew a decade earlier. His facts and figures neatly rebut charges that the DoD did nothing or adopted a response that was, by the end of the first week, incommensurate with the challenge. He also rightly points to deficiencies elsewhere in the system that contributed to the difficulties: an under-resourced and unwieldy Department of Homeland Security and a dithering Louisiana Governor Kathleen Blanco.
But he does not resolve to my satisfaction the essential critique about delay, which, according to some insiders, was partly due to Rumsfeld’s desire to avoid saddling his department with another vast unfunded mandate far removed from its core mission of fighting wars. A close reader can discern Rumsfeld’s position in the oblique way he describes the internal deliberations, but the reader perhaps will miss the intensity of the debate inside the White House during those critical hours. In particular, the reader will not pick up how exasperated some White House staffers were with Rumsfeld’s position, which, they believed, helped feed a public narrative of an administration out of touch and insensitive to the scale of human suffering. Rumsfeld concludes (a) that Bush ultimately made the right calls on Katrina and (b) that the Department of Defense stepped up in a large way. He may be right about that. But Rumsfeld probably has not mollified those who believe that the administration should have done everything it did 24-48 hours sooner and that Rumsfeld’s opposition contributed to the delay.
Iraq Surge: Rumsfeld’s discussion of the surge decision is curious. There is an odd error of commission: He has the State department presenting at a June 2006 Camp David meeting a view that was not developed until four or five months later. And a significant omission: He touts at some length (4 paragraphs) one anti-surge perspective that was aired at the Camp David meeting but fails to mention the opposite, pro-surge perspective aired at the same meeting. This omission allows him to avoid addressing whether his own anti-surge position — at the time, he favored continuing to hand over the fight to the Iraqis despite the deteriorating security situation — was the correct one.
But he is emphatic on one point: It was the senior military commanders in the field, Generals Abizaid and Casey, who most stoutly resisted additional forces. Left implied: … and not Rumsfeld. He is factually correct about the views of the field commanders. Let us stipulate for the sake of argument that his implication is also correct: They were more adamant than he was. What I find curious is that this episode is coming nearly 700 pages into a memoir dotted with scores of examples of Rumsfeld pressing subordinates, peers, and even superiors to second-guess their assumptions, revisit their conclusions, and break out of their analytical straitjackets. Why wasn’t the Rumsfeld of the previous 700 pages leading the effort to do just that now at the moment of greatest peril in the war effort? Perhaps one answer is that he agreed with his generals and saw no reason to change.
Perhaps another answer is this: A careful reader will note that throughout 2006, when many inside were pushing for a top-to-bottom review of the war strategy in Iraq, Rumsfeld was pushing for a top-to-bottom review of, well, the entire global bureaucracy beginning with the U.S. federal government. In that push, Rumsfeld rightly pointed out that global and U.S. federal institutions were designed in a different era to meet a different array of challenges and opportunities; collectively, they made an unwieldy match to the post-9/11 constellation of threats. He rightly argued that we would always be adjusting on the fly if we did not undertake a massive reorganization, something that would consume an enormous amount of political capital — which he also (rightly) noted was by this time “in short supply,” with the administration under siege and fighting two wars.
The question left unprobed is whether these calls for a massive reorganization may have felt like a distraction from the urgent need to review our strategy in those very wars. Rumsfeld’s account leaves open the charge that he showed greater zeal in reviewing the shortcomings of others (especially in matters far from Defense’s home turf) than possible shortcomings in his own bailiwick, at least when it came to Iraq.
My reaction to both of these issues may be ironic, since I get the impression that Rumsfeld focused the memoir more as an engagement with his internal critics than with his external critics. Insiders will have a sense of déjà entendu in reading the memoir. They will recognize Rumsfeld’s line of reasoning and have the same “yes, but” reaction they had when the argument first was joined. And they will wish that that there was one more round of debate in which Rumsfeld engaged more of those “yes, but what about this…” queries.
If there were such a round, I am confident that Rumsfeld would have important things to say that just might require a tweak or two to my own view. The memoirs document to my satisfaction that Rumsfeld was right about a lot more things than the conventional media account of his tenure would lead you to believe. But he wasn’t always right. And I am not persuaded that the champion wrestler has fully grappled with all that needs to be wrestled to the ground.
Peter Feaver is a professor of political science and public policy and Bass Fellow at Duke University and coeditor of Shadow Government.
William Inboden: Should He Have Quit While He Was Ahead … In 1974?
One of the paradoxes of history is that while perspective requires time, a person’s most recent public role is often the one that remains permanently lodged in the public memory. This is not good news for Brett Favre, and it may not be good news for Donald Rumsfeld, either.
In his memoirs, Rumsfeld seems mindful that our exit from public life determines much of how we are remembered, as he spends 60 percent of the book on just the last six years of his over four decades of public life. Yet what a four decades those were, and they too bear remembering. Consider, that if Rumsfeld had retired from public life in:
– 1974, he would be remembered as an accomplished senior member of the Nixon administration in both economic and foreign policy, after stints as director of the Economic Stabilization Program and U.S. ambassador to NATO;
– 1977, he would be remembered as President Gerald Ford’s capable chief of staff and the youngest secretary of defense in American history;
– 1985, he would be remembered as the successful CEO of GD Searle and trusted Middle East envoy for President Ronald Reagan;
– 2000, he would be remembered as an accomplished corporate leader across multiple sectors, a Republican elder statesman, and an expert on numerous national security issues;
– 2002, he would be remembered as the innovative secretary of defense and media darling who insisted on needed reforms at the Pentagon and presided over the stunningly successful defeat of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan.
But Rumsfeld did not retire from public life until 2006, and even then — depending on whose account one believes — his retirement was not entirely on his terms.
His concern in this book, judging by his comparatively brief attention to the earlier decades and the considerable material devoted to his last few years as secretary of defense, is to reshape his legacy based on those final years. For it was in those four years of his public life — marked by controversies and failures so well known that each needs only a word or two: Iraq WMD, Phase IV, Abu Ghraib, Guantanámo, Shinseki, “Old Europe,” “stuff happens,” “dead-enders” — that Rumsfeld’s previous accomplishments faded and his current reputation emerged.
Curiously, the beginning of Rumsfeld’s memoir hints at his attempt to learn from his own history. The book’s first three chapters share vignettes from the Middle East in the early 1980s: Rumsfeld’s missions to Baghdad, Lebanon, and other trouble spots as Reagan’s special envoy for the region. From these experiences, he drew his own “lessons of history” that shaped his approach to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq two decades later: the need for strength and ruthlessness, the pathologies of the region that make it inhospitable to democracy, the risks of extended troop deployments that make forces vulnerable and create dependencies among the locals, the need for tight coordination between diplomacy and defense policy, and the need to take the offensive against terrorist threats before they materialize.
And some — perhaps many — of the lessons that he draws from the Middle East in the 1980s are true, at least to an extent. But history’s “lessons” from one context can be precarious to apply in another, just as a person’s strengths in one context can be weaknesses in another. For example, Rumsfeld’s worry that the fragile government of Lebanon had become dependent on U.S. forces in the 1980s shaped his insistence in 2003 on a light footprint invasion for Iraq and a comparatively rapid troop drawdown and transfer to Iraqi control. But in the Iraq context, as is now well known, the lack of troops led to a death spiral of disorder and violence that was not arrested until the “surge” in 2007.
Nor does Rumsfeld appear to always follow his own advice and historical lessons. His multiple criticisms of the National Security Council and State Department include the NSC’s alleged inability to issue clear presidential directives and the State Department’s unwillingness to implement clear presidential directives. Yet when describing Bush’s very clear orders to support democratic institutions and human rights in Iraq and elsewhere, Rumsfeld voices his own emphatic disagreement with this agenda, criticizes the State Department for attempting to implement it, and hints at his own refusal to support it.
How Rumsfeld will be remembered by history remains to be seen. Ongoing events in the Middle East — demands for democracy in Tunisia and Egypt, the fragile yet expanding democracy in Iraq — are potential cavils against Rumsfeld’s skepticism about Bush’s freedom agenda. Yet with this memoir he at least provides the valuable service of giving scholars much more material to weigh, as they attempt to turn the unknowns of Rumsfeld’s history into the knowns of public memory.
Will Inboden is a distinguished scholar at the Strauss Center for International Security and Law at the University of Texas-Austin, and a coeditor of Shadow Government.
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Cameron Abadi is a deputy editor at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @CameronAbadi
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Embedded with U.S. forces in the Pacific, I saw the dilemmas of deterrence firsthand.
America Can’t Stop China’s Rise
And it should stop trying.
The Morality of Ukraine’s War Is Very Murky
The ethical calculations are less clear than you might think.