Obituary

Donald Rumsfeld, Iraq War Architect, Dead at 88

The two-time defense secretary’s hubris helped shape twin quagmires for U.S. forces.

By , a senior correspondent and deputy news editor at Foreign Policy.
Former U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld speaks during a discussion at the Hudson Institute in Washington.
Former U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld speaks during a discussion at the Hudson Institute in Washington on March 29, 2011. Alex Wong/Getty Images

Donald Rumsfeld, the former U.S. defense secretary who died this week at the age of 88, was a latter-day exemplar of what the journalist David Halberstam called “the best and the brightest”: a shining intellect and commanding personality who in the end was brought down by his own overconfidence.

Rumsfeld, an ultra-hawk who once declared, “I don’t do quagmires,” will likely be most remembered for his pivotal role in orchestrating the 2003 invasion of Iraq and the two-decade-long quagmire in Afghanistan.

Donald Rumsfeld, the former U.S. defense secretary who died this week at the age of 88, was a latter-day exemplar of what the journalist David Halberstam called “the best and the brightest”: a shining intellect and commanding personality who in the end was brought down by his own overconfidence.

Rumsfeld, an ultra-hawk who once declared, “I don’t do quagmires,” will likely be most remembered for his pivotal role in orchestrating the 2003 invasion of Iraq and the two-decade-long quagmire in Afghanistan.

A standout collegiate wrestler at Princeton University and former naval aviator, Rumsfeld rose swiftly in Washington, holding the same job at two very different times in American history. In 1975, at 43, he became the youngest defense secretary ever under President Gerald R. Ford, and then in 2001 he took on the job again as one of the oldest Pentagon chiefs ever sworn in. Much earlier in his career, starting in the 1960s, he served as a three-term congressman from Illinois and then as head of President Richard Nixon’s Office of Economic Opportunity, helping to orchestrate the rise of his longtime friend, Dick Cheney, in politics. In between, he became a Fortune 500 CEO and turnaround specialist. 

Through it all, Rumsfeld was a dyed-in-the-wool conservative. During the Cold War, he sought to defy Henry Kissinger’s policy of detente with the Soviets and pushed for a major military buildup, pressing for the development of cruise missiles and the B-1 bomber. And after he became President George W. Bush’s Pentagon chief, Rumsfeld was, along with then-Vice President Dick Cheney, one of the key members of the administration who pressed Bush to move quickly to target Iraq, not just Afghanistan, after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. 

Square-jawed and squinty-eyed, Rumsfeld relished playing the tough guy and the embodiment of American power—Bush once described him as a “matinee idol.” It was ironic, therefore, that he ended up exposing the worst vulnerabilities of American power through a series of decisions that led to his firing in 2006. Rumsfeld hoped to achieve major results with only a “small footprint” of a few troops. He succeeded at this in Afghanistan in the early days, ousting the Taliban in under two months in late 2001 using laser-targeted Joint Direct Attack Munitions and other bombs dropped from B-52s. 

But then things began to go seriously awry in what was at the time called the global war on terrorism. When Gary Berntsen, the CIA officer in charge of the operation at Tora Bora, believed he had Osama bin Laden trapped in December 2001, only three months after 9/11, he pleaded with Rumsfeld and other superiors in Washington to send troops. Rumsfeld turned him down, arguing that Pakistani forces would trap bin Laden as the Afghans forced him southward. (Instead, the Pakistanis were likely helping bin Laden to escape.) 

And when James Roche, then the Air Force secretary, asked him to reconsider his support of the Iraq invasion in the fall of 2002—saying, “Don, you do realize that Iraq could be another Vietnam?”—Rumsfeld all but threw him out of his office, according to Roche. Rumsfeld, whose main desire was to exorcise the ghost of Vietnam forever—restoring American power and prestige in the world—was outraged at the very suggestion. “Of course it won’t be Vietnam,” Rumsfeld said. “We are going to go in, overthrow Saddam, get out. That’s it.” 

But none of it worked the way he wanted it to. Not only did Rumsfeld fail to follow up on the pursuit of bin Laden and his lieutenants at Tora Bora, but he decided to minimize stability operations and confine peacekeeping to Kabul. “When foreigners come in with international solutions to local problems, it can create a dependency,” Rumsfeld explained in a February 2003 speech. That restraint, however, only opened the way for the return of the Taliban. At around the same time, Rumsfeld turned his attention to making war on Iraq, albeit without an occupation plan. (Again, he wanted to leave quickly.)

Then, after orchestrating the invasion of Iraq, he remained in denial about the growing insurgency there, infamously sputtering at one news conference, “Stuff happens.” His lack of oversight helped produce the atrocities at Abu Ghraib and other prisons. Finally, as Rumsfeld’s inattention to Afghanistan and the violent insurgency in Iraq began to cost more and more U.S. lives, Bush fired him in 2006. 

Rumsfeld was not blind about Iraq. He foresaw the pitfalls of a long foreign occupation, calling it “unnatural,” like a bad set of a broken bone. He planned to reduce the U.S. presence in Iraq to some 30,000 troops within months of the March 2003 invasion. But when things did not go his way, Rumsfeld’s habitual tendency was to simply insist that his critics were wrong. Rumsfeld, for example, defied repeated advice from Sen. John McCain and others that the U.S. troop size was too small to quell an insurgency.

By the time he went into retirement, many military experts were comparing Rumsfeld unfavorably to Robert McNamara, “the best and the brightest”-era defense chief who orchestrated the Vietnam War. “Whatever McNamara’s sins in getting deeper into the Deep Muddy [Vietnam], he was at least trying to do something about it. Rumsfeld demanded responsibility for all of postwar Iraq and then did nothing with it. He tried to destroy the interagency process. And I think he was successful,” one senior Pentagon official told me at the time.

In the end, as the journalist George Packer wrote in his book The Assassins’ Gate, it may have been Rumsfeld’s sheer longevity as an official that led both him and Cheney into the folly of Iraq. “Through the three decades of their public lives, the only thing America had to fear was its own return to weakness,” Packer wrote. “But after the Cold War ended, they sat out the debates of the 1990s about [transnational terrorism]. … When September 11 forced the imagination to grapple with something radically new, the president’s foreign-policy advisors reached for what they had always known. The threat, as they saw it, lay in well-armed enemy states.”

Michael Hirsh is a senior correspondent and deputy news editor at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @michaelphirsh

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