by Victor Davis Hanson
A review of Known and Unknown: A Memoir by Donald Rumsfeld (Sentinel, 832 pp.)
The wonder is not that Donald Rumsfeld was one of the longest-serving defense secretaries in history, but that George W. Bush nominated him in 2001 in the first place. As he makes clear in his riveting new memoir, the 68-year-old Rumsfeld had a lot working against him after the contested presidential election of 2000. During the Ford and Reagan administrations, he had wound up on the wrong side of George H. W. Bush — partly because he opposed the elder Bush about certain appointments and political endorsements and partly because, as a hard-charging, self-made Midwesterner, he was unabashedly skeptical of the East Coast privileges of “those who enjoy the inherited benefit of prominent names.” That long-standing estrangement meant that many of the Bush family confidants, both inside the new George W. Bush administration (Colin Powell, Condoleezza Rice) and outside it (James Baker, Brent Scowcroft), were probably skeptical of Rumsfeld’s history and style from the beginning. Their unease only increased over the next six years.
As both a former CEO who had turned around the pharmaceutical giant G. D. Searle and a veteran government infighter, Rumsfeld wanted to reinvent the Pentagon to run more like a cost-efficient enterprise whose capabilities matched its obligations. He was dubious about the status-quo military commitments of the United States but willing to use overwhelming force if need be — but only in areas of vital interest. Without careful deference, then, Rumsfeld’s tight-fisted cost-cutting and questioning of American defense obligations was bound to alienate entrenched interests at both the Pentagon and the State Department. He quickly alienated both, often finding himself at odds with senior generals and admirals, Powell and Rice. CEOs, after all, make and execute policy in ways that single cabinet officers usually do not.
Several themes are interwoven throughout this massive, exhaustively documented memoir: Rumsfeld’s devout loyalty to and admiration for George W. Bush, unchanged to this day; his four-decade-long friendship and alliance with Dick Cheney; the way the attacks of September 11 radically and unexpectedly altered Rumsfeld’s second Pentagon tenure; his bewilderment over the media’s tarnishing of a sterling, nearly half-century-long record of public service over the Iraq War; and his intimacy with most of the leading American politicians and statesmen — and national crises — of our era.
Why did Rumsfeld so admire the younger Bush, given the family tensions and Rumsfeld’s far more substantial political and executive experience? Bush, Rumsfeld felt, was plain-speaking, decisive, often humble to the point of self-caricature, and unambiguous about the need to further American interests. He was “decidedly down-to-earth, with no inclination to formality; his demeanor was different from his father’s somewhat patrician manner.” Rumsfeld’s Bush appears in part a throwback to a decent Jerry Ford, in part an upbeat Ronald Reagan devoted to American exceptionalism. His chief fault, in Rumsfeld’s view, was perhaps not responding to an unprecedented level of vitriol in his second term, which would eventually overwhelm his cabinet.
Cheney, whom Rumsfeld as President Ford’s chief of staff had brought into the White House as an assistant to the president, is portrayed as Rumsfeld’s bureaucratic doppelgänger. Both were intimately familiar with the Ivy League and yet by choice estranged from its eastern-seaboard culture. Both were savvy and skilled pragmatists who made lots of money as corporate CEOs between, and in part as a result of, their stints in public service, and both were unquestionably loyal to one another over the years. Cheney explains Rumsfeld’s inclusion in the George W. Bush administration, and it was despite Cheney’s enormous influence, rather than because of it, that Rumsfeld was forced out of the Pentagon in late 2006. When Cheney was deemed the paragon of conservative government competence, Rumsfeld shared in that positive appraisal; when the media reduced Cheney to Darth Vader status, Rumsfeld was likewise easily caricatured.
Rumsfeld was in the Pentagon when the hijacked American Airlines Flight 77 rammed it on September 11. He stayed at his post amid the rubble and within hours was trying to sort out the significance of the attack and possible responses to it. (He notes that the attack could have been even worse: the targeted sectors of the Pentagon were undergoing refurbishment, which meant that many offices were unoccupied when the Boeing 757 struck.) On that morning, Rumsfeld’s eight-month tenure was transformed. His focus changed from questioning long-standing weapons systems and pushing missile defense to conducting war, first in Afghanistan and later in Iraq. We forget now that much of the insider animosity toward Rumsfeld had its roots in these early turf disputes within the Pentagon. The secretary would go on to cancel the $11 billion Crusader artillery platform, tilt toward Special Forces over the “old” army, and advocate reformulation of classical divisions into lighter, more mobile, autonomous brigades.
It would be hard to find another American — George H. W. Bush, perhaps — with Rumsfeld’s aggregate government experience. He worked for Presidents Nixon, Ford, Reagan, and George W. Bush. He met every president since John F. Kennedy. Over some 50 years, Rumsfeld had been a Navy jet pilot, a four-term US congressman, the head of numerous offices in the Nixon administration, and chief of staff of the Ford White House. He became both the youngest and the oldest man ever to serve as secretary of defense, first under Ford and then under George W. Bush. He was often a critical special diplomatic envoy. As a Nixon administration overseer of federal programs, he prevented 1970s America from getting even more unwieldy; as secretary of defense, he kept the country from signing a disadvantageous strategic-arms treaty with Leonid Brezhnev and insisted on merit-based procurement that led to the Abrams tank. And yet by 2006, all that had been reduced to cheap “Rummy” slurs from New York Times columnists.
Why and how? It’s fair to say that there was a perfect storm of events and that Rumsfeld still doesn’t fully appreciate it. It’s easy to forget his magazine-cover superstar status between 2001 and 2003, when, in televised press conferences, he played father-explicator to a seemingly adolescent Washington press corps. Those he lectured and embarrassed could live with remonstrations, as long as they could bask in his reflected glory: his calmness on 9/11 in the wreckage of the Pentagon; his design of the amazing two-month removal of the Taliban, followed by the installation of the pro-Western and, for a while, much-admired Hamid Karzai; his brilliant three-week ouster of the odious Saddam Hussein.
But when such success seemed to dissipate — as it always does in the yin and yang of politics and foreign affairs — during the hellish violence in Iraq after late 2003, the media got even. Rumsfeld’s seemingly brutal assessment of December 15, 2004 — “As you know, you go to war with the army you have” — might have been taken as more of the usual realism from the straight-talking secretary if it had been pronounced in 2002. But when IEDs were blowing light-skinned Humvees apart, such candor seemed callous, especially when deliberately excerpted into sound bites. Yet Rumsfeld seemed almost unaware that his blunt, realistic, and descriptive press tutorials had become rich sources of quotations, used to prove his coldness. The more he attempted to remind the press that mistakes and errors were the “stuff” of war — and only their remedies the barometer of success or failure — the more a country exasperated with rising casualties saw such explication, in the words of one conservative critic, as “arrogant buck-passing.”
A second strike was the great debate between surgers and light-footprinters in Iraq after 2006, the full circumstances of which remain unclear. In Rumsfeld’s telling, he was open to all options from his military commanders. Yet until 2006, Generals Franks, Sanchez, Casey, and Abizaid had all assured him — quite wrongly — that a higher profile for US forces was not the solution in the heart of the ancient caliphate. Were his generals telling him what they assumed he wanted to hear — fewer troops, limited deployment and expenditure? By the time of increasing violence in late 2003, shouldn’t the defense secretary have overruled them?
It seems so clear-cut today. Yet Lincoln and his war secretaries endured a succession of bad generals giving bad advice until finally, in late 1864, Generals Grant and Sherman executed the president’s original vision of bisecting the Confederacy and squeezing the Army of Northern Virginia from north and south. And it was Sherman — not Lincoln, not Secretary of War Edwin Stanton — who appreciated the strategic and psychological importance of taking Atlanta before November 1864. Sherman alone made the plans to take the city at tolerable costs and thereby win his president reelection. America had no enterprising Shermans in senior command in the field between 2003 and 2006 until the emergence of David Petraeus, and savior generals are rarely created by their superiors. They emerge on their own through the tragically slow distillation of war.
Rumsfeld argues — and documents — that as a “latecomer in supporting the surge,” he was nevertheless still open to change and so signed off on the Petraeus appointment before his departure. It was all too little, too late, amid popular anger over the human costs in Iraq. Fairly or not, Rumsfeld was blamed for not demanding a larger initial invasion force, for not preempting the insurrection with an early surge of American troops, for worrying more about getting out of Iraq than staying to stabilize it — and for allowing a once-brilliant and overwhelmingly popular military and political effort to descend into chaos that would end the Bush presidency as effective governance. In 2002, most had marveled at Rumsfeld’s vision of a lighter and more lethal American military, in which a few Special Forces mavericks on horseback used laptops to channel laser-guided bombs and overthrow the Taliban at the cost of 11 American dead. In 2006, many of the same enthusiasts blamed Rumsfeld for not deploying enough traditional, heavily outfitted soldiers — “boots on the ground” — to patrol Iraqi streets. The number of those who, at various times, claimed both that they wanted more troops and that they didn’t need more troops — from Paul Bremer to influential senators, and from Afghanistan to Iraq — makes reconstruction of culpability difficult.
Rumsfeld was not a neoconservative, at least in the general sense of that much-maligned term. At heart, he was a sort of Nixon-Ford-Kissinger-elder-Bush realist who believed in knocking around enemies and sending a message but not getting entangled in planting constitutional republics in thin foreign soil. That could put him at odds with his loyal allies, like the president and the idealistic deputy defense secretary, Paul Wolfowitz, and in rough agreement with his better-connected rivals, like Secretaries Powell and Rice — an ironic but ultimately untenable position. Like Cheney, Rumsfeld administered a grand strategy of Middle East democratization about which he had grave doubts and in earlier circumstances would have opposed, making him seem a sellout to paleoconservatives, a suspect to neoconservatives, and part of a generic, odious “them” to his liberal detractors. When times were good, Rumsfeld was just a generic conservative in a conservative administration; when they weren’t, he was an odd — and often outspoken — man out.
What is the legacy of the Rumsfeld years? Neither Senator John McCain’s assessment of him as “one of the worst” defense secretaries nor the childish name-calling of opportunistic pundits begins to hint at a judgment. The apparent viability of Iraq’s present constitutional government, the unspoken foreign-policy consensus not to try such regime change and occupation again, and the ongoing complexity of Afghanistan will make appraisals of Rumsfeld’s record controversial for years to come.
After all, Rumsfeld’s Guantánamo gulag is now President Obama’s apparently necessary detention center. Predator drones came of age under Rumsfeld and were attacked by the Left as airborne terrorism, only to have their missions quadrupled under Obama. Ditto preventative detention, renditions, and military tribunals, all of which now have the Obama stamp of approval. The Abu Ghraib scandal was an aberration caused by poor leadership in the field, rather than a logical result of decisions emanating from Rumsfeld’s Pentagon office — a stain for which Rumsfeld nevertheless offered his resignation in 2004.
Today’s military looks much more like Rumsfeld’s vision than like his predecessors’, to both the relief and frustration of various military analysts. We live in an era in which Vice President Biden — who once, in despair, called for the trisection of Iraq — can imagine a unified and constitutional Iraq as his administration’s “greatest achievement.” We won’t know for years how to evaluate the tenure of those who skillfully removed Saddam, were unable to achieve postwar stability for four years, and took enormous risks in at last changing the pathological status quo of the Middle East — a story of upheaval that continues today, from Beirut to Tunis to Cairo to Tripoli.
Many commentators have blasted Rumsfeld for not using his memoir to apologize in the manner of Robert McNamara and for excusing his own hesitancy from 2004 to 2006. Yet Rumsfeld does acknowledge a number of mistakes, some dating back to his congressional years. And for those who believe in what I would call the accepted Iraq narrative — General Shinseki bravely warned of the need for more troops and was punished by Rumsfeld for his candor; a beleaguered Colin Powell was always a reluctant war supporter and was duped by a conniving intelligence community; an imperious Rumsfeld insisted that his generals not ask him for more troops and was nearly criminally negligent in waiting so long to up-arm Humvees and order new body armor — they will either have to produce commensurate written texts that substantiate these assertions or prove that Rumsfeld’s ample paper trail and meticulous documentation are at odds with his performance as secretary. With the publication of Known and Unknown, the onus shifts back onto Rumsfeld’s critics to prove him wrong or disingenuous — and to show that the evidence he so amply adduces is neither accurate nor complete.
What the book does not leave in question is Rumsfeld’s life before age 68, which at long last is made clear to the reading public. Only a dozen or so Americans in the latter twentieth century saw more, did more, and thought more about the advancement of American society at home and the interests of the United States abroad than did Donald Rumsfeld, and fewer still had more success and satisfaction doing it, and ruffled so many feathers in the process.
A magnanimous Donald Rumsfeld seems determined to give away most of the money he made during a hectic three decades in private enterprise to a variety of admirable causes (he is donating all the profits from his memoir to veterans’ charities). He is as candid and unapologetic in retirement as he was in government and corporate service. “Take away the insurgency in Iraq,” an acquaintance once told me, “and Donald Rumsfeld would have been a sort of icon of postwar America.” That might now seem obvious, but we don’t yet have the full history — or know the ultimate consequences — of the Iraq War. With Rumsfeld’s memoir, we are getting closer.
©2011 Victor Davis Hanson