A Brief for the Defense
By Donald Rumsfeld
As Robert McNamara, a man familiar with sending people to die, explained to filmmaker Errol Morris,
Any military commander who is honest with himself, or with those he’s speaking to, will admit that he has made mistakes in the application of military power. He’s killed people unnecessarily — his own troops or other troops — through mistakes, through errors of judgment.
The testaments left to posterity by those who make war should not be afraid to reflect that reality – especially if the war, like the one in Iraq, is so shot through with deadly mistakes.
More than any American except George W. Bush, Donald Rumsfeld is responsible for those mistakes. And yet he says, in Known and Unknown, his cowardly new memoir, that his biggest mistake was not quitting after the revelations of torture at Abu Ghraib:
Abu Ghraib and its follow-on effects, including the continued drumbeat of “torture” maintained by partisan critics of the war and the President, became a damaging distraction. 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.
My initial, spasmodic response was to think, “right you are,” which I promptly scribbled in the margin. But Rumsfeld is just making a typically disingenuous stab at rectitude, by which he means to make us think of him as a person who has actually considered his past carefully and is prepared to admit his errors.
“Ambassador Rumsfeld, may I present to you his Excellency, Saddam Hussein, the President of Iraq.”
After a brief Author’s Note, Known and Unknown opens in 1983, in Baghdad, with these, the words of the dictator’s aide. This meeting, and the infamous photograph of Saddam presenting Rumsfeld with a pair of golden spurs, have been used to bludgeon the latter for years. At first I thought it was gutsy to place this episode at the start. Soon I thought it crass, as Rumsfeld touts the geopolitical utility of allying with Saddam and suggests that critics are just being naive. He then goes on to describe his time during the early 80s as Middle East envoy in Lebanon for the Reagan administration, and the mistakes Reagan made in the region. It quickly becomes apparent that the Iraq meeting and the Lebanon excursion are meant to portray him as a seasoned hand in military affairs and the Middle East, someone prepared for the wars he would supervise in Afghanistan and Iraq. George W. Bush, describing his youthful choices in Decision Points, deployed a similar teleology with unconvincing results. Rumsfeld does no better.
He refrains from criticizing Reagan harshly (you don’t do that to your party’s sacred cows), but he makes it clear that US intervention in Lebanon was horribly bungled. From that Rumsfeld draws some lessons, foremost among them “the profound truth that weakness is provocative.” He quotes approvingly Margaret Thatcher’s dictum that “a mixed message was the worst kind to send to an authoritarian regime.” He felt it was foolish to allow “our friends to become dependent on the United States,” as the Lebanese government proved unable to keep the peace by itself. He learned “the difficulty of having a national military force in a country with strong ethnic divisions,” and his tenure in Beirut “confirmed my impressions of the Middle East as a tangle of hidden agendas, longstanding animosities, and differing perceptions operating above and beneath the surface.” American soldiers, he laments, were not given a clear mission or appropriately trained for their environment.
This list, corroborated by memos cited in the book, is stupefying: twenty years later every item enumerated above either motivated a lethal military decision or was lost in a torrent of hubris. Rumsfeld is trying to do two things here. The first is to use his chimerical wisdom to play himself off against Condoleezza Rice, Colin Powell, the generals under his command, and the others upon whom he seeks to unload the burden of responsibility for Iraq. The second is to use his archive of memos – also available on his website – to build a case for himself. The papers do confirm that he noted lessons above at the time (never mind for the moment that they would be forgotten or misused). But when the book turns to Iraq, out of thousands of “snowflakes,” as his staff came to call his memos, Rumsfeld fights the worst charges against him with only a few, all either misleadingly used or outliers among the cascade. After all, they were called snowflakes for their ubiquity.
A representative example is a memo he authored during the buildup to invasion. The optimism of the Iraq hawks, foremost among them Vice President Cheney, along with Paul Wolfowitz and Douglas Feith in Rumsfeld’s Defense Department, was extreme. Wishing to cleanse himself of this taint, Rumsfeld cites a memo, dated October 15, 2002, called “Iraq: An Illustrative List of Potential Problems to be Considered and Addressed.” It lists 20, most of them preoccupied with the wider region and worldwide geopolitics, “offered,” it reads, “simply as a checklist so that they are part of the deliberation.” There are only two entries that deal with the forthcoming occupation. Number 17 posits that the “US could fail to manage post-Saddam Hussein Iraq successfully, with the result that it could fracture into two or three pieces, to the detriment of the Middle East and the benefit of Iran.” Number 19 notes the possibility that “rather than having the post-Saddam effort require 2 to 4 years, it could take 8 to 10 years, thereby absorbing US leadership, military and financial resources.” Even these two are framed with the wider region in mind. And yet Rumsfeld instructed none of his subordinates – that is, the Defense Department and the entire military – to plan for them, though he claims he authored the memo “because I considered the topic so important.”
(photo: Andy Nelson)
He would have us further believe that he was stymied in his supervision of invasion and postwar planning by Colin Powell’s unhelpful State Department. These passages dealing with Powell, whom Rumsfeld accuses of presiding over an organization that constantly tried to undercut him, radiate petty contempt and hypocrisy. Rumsfeld loved bureaucratic infighting, and did little to cool tensions or inject deliberation, with catastrophic results. Cheney and the neoconservatives in the Defense Department repeatedly tried to prune State Department personnel from the Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance and its successor, the Coalition Provisional Authority. These people were deemed insufficiently supportive of the invasion and Bush’s democratization agenda. Unfortunately they were the government’s foremost experts on the country and the region. Rumsfeld likely agreed with this purge or, at best, went along without protest: he avoids the subject, and I can find no memos referring to it.
It is a common misconception that Rumsfeld is a hardcore neoconservative. In fact, he has contempt for nation-building, something to which we will return, but he shares many of their assumptions. Foremost among these is that the war-making power of the Presidency was unjustly curtailed after Nixon:
[Dick] Cheney and I had witnessed the era of Vietnam and Watergate, during the fevered debate over the so-called imperial presidency…In the early days of the Ford administration, Bryce Harlow, the savvy White House liaison to Congress, former Eisenhower aide, and a friend, told me – and I am paraphrasing from memory: “The steady pressure by Congress and the courts is to reduce executive authority. It is inexorable, inevitable, and historical. Resolve that when you leave the White House, leave it with the same authorities it had when you came. Do not contribute to the erosion of presidential power on your watch.”
Harlow’s words left an impression on me, and, I suspect, on Cheney.
Cheney was hired as an aide to Rumsfeld during the Nixon administration, and became Chief of Staff in the Ford Administration, while Rumsfeld undertook his first stint as Secretary of Defense. They carried their warm relationship into the second Bush Administration (Cheney was Secretary of Defense in the first), and Rumsfeld’s top people on Iraq were Douglas Feith, who assembled intelligence used for justifying the invasion and attempted to plan for the aftermath, and Paul Wolfowitz, the foremost advocate of overturning Saddam in the administration. Rumsfeld was a signatory of the Project for the New American Century, the infamous group that began advocating for regime change in Iraq in the mid-1990s. Rumsfeld also insisted to the President that the Pentagon be in sole charge of the occupation. So the idea that Rumsfeld was not a part of keeping State personnel out of Iraq is ludicrous, just as it is ludicrous that he was a voice of caution in invading Iraq, or that he was a moderate on the question of detainee interrogation – an argument he attempts to make by contrasting the techniques he authorized with more brutal CIA methods. “The legal justifications behind the decisions and policies we made on detainee affairs were sound and firmly rooted in precedent,” and those arguing otherwise were “partisans in Congress, self-styled human rights advocates, anti-Bush journalists, lawyers of suspected terrorists, and others.”
Rumsfeld is not an expansive thinker. Like Confucius or a management guru, Rumsfeld likes his wisdom in epigrams, which he seeds liberally throughout the book. On upsetting the State Department and foreign governments, he chortles that “if you want traction, you must first have friction.” Or “the wind in the tower presages the coming storm.” (That one, at least, is Chinese.) He is constantly grafting milquetoast conservative platitudes about dependency and strength onto complicated questions of international relations. His most damnable little gem comes from Dwight Eisenhower. “Plans,” Rumsfeld quotes approvingly, “are worthless, but planning is everything.”
And so we come to the apex of Rumsfeld’s incompetency: his overbearing and destructive management of war planning. He begins by offloading blame. After the September 11 attacks, he claims, Bush asked him for some “creative” options for an Iraq invasion plan (there is no memo for this, either). The Pentagon kept a plan current, which someone dubbed “Desert Storm on Steroids” – it envisioned a total force of 500,000 – but Tommy Franks, the overall commander of forces in the region, “confirmed our opinion that it was seriously out-of-date.” For a new plan, Rumsfeld “suggested that Franks start by focusing on the key assumptions underlying his plan” and “emphasized that failing to examine the assumptions on which a plan is based can start a planning process based on incorrect premises, and then proceed perfectly logically to incorrect conclusions.” According to this version of the story, his sage warning issued, Rumsfeld let the military planners take the lead.
This goes against virtually every scrap of post-hoc interview and reporting we have. Dozens inside of the military, including many involved in the planning, said that Rumsfeld brought Franks back again and again, forcing him to justify every last battalion, urging him to cut whatever he could. Two aides to Douglas Feith were sent to the planning office in Tampa, Florida to supervise, and were eventually accused of spying for the Defense Department and forced out: the planners’ disagreements were being voiced with uncanny accuracy by Rumsfeld in his meetings with Franks. And the Secretary kept pushing for a faster buildup, arguing that forces could be added later as needed.
Rumsfeld has since maintained that he was merely asking questions. But his ability to intimidate subordinates is legendary, and questions can service a point of view the person asking hasn’t the courage to state plainly. There is a passage from an article by Atlantic reporter James Fallows, who did some of the best work in the lead-up to the war, that is worth quoting in full:
“In what I came to think of as Secretary Rumsfeld’s style,” an Army official who was involved in the process told me recently, “he didn’t directly say no but asked a lot of hard questions about the plan and sent us away without approval. He would ask questions that delayed the activation of units, because he didn’t think the planned flow was right. Our people came back with the understanding that their numbers were far too big and they should be thinking more along the lines of Afghanistan”—that is, plan for a light, mobile attack featuring Special Forces soldiers. Another participant described Rumsfeld as looking line by line at the deployments proposed in the TPFDD [Time-Phased Force and Deployment List, the Army’s meticulous plan for the build-up] and saying, “Can’t we do this with one company?” or “Shouldn’t we get rid of this unit?” Making detailed, last-minute adjustments to the TPFDD was, in the Army’s view, like pulling cogs at random out of a machine. According to an observer, “The generals would say, Sir, these changes will ripple back to every railhead and every company.”
But Rumsfeld persisted, to the detriment of every soldier in the country. Military police units, for example, were deployed haphazardly, often with no proper sequence or equipment. One of those units, unable to train stateside or when it got to Iraq because it had no equipment, was the one posted to Abu Ghraib. Most strangely, in a war predicated upon Saddam’s possession of chemical and biological weapons, there were nowhere near enough troops available to guard the sites where intelligence indicated they would be found. This is to say nothing of the conventional weapons dumps, of which the nascent insurgency quickly availed themselves. “It’s possible,” Rumsfeld begrudgingly writes, “there may have been times when more troops could have been helpful.” But as Iraq descended into chaos and the insurgency grew, arguments against troop increases “continued to seem persuasive.” He kept asking his commanders if they wanted more, they kept saying no, and that, according to this book, was enough.
Rumsfeld didn’t approve the military’s plan for invasion until December of 2002, less than three months before the invasion. That left little time to plan for the aftermath of combat. The assumptions of the military planners and the neoconservatives were fantastical (we all remember the flowers that were supposed to greet us), and Rumsfeld saw no reason to question them. Jay Garner, who Rumsfeld chose to head up the post-war occupation two months before the war began, had to fight to get State Department deliberations on the subject, and was assigned minimal staff – and then often on the basis of political connections suggested by Dick Cheney’s office. The same was true for the staff of Garner’s successor, L. Paul Bremer III, whose personnel were vetted at the Pentagon by the White House liaison, James O’Bierne. Rumsfeld leaves all this unmentioned, and cites no memos.
With the country in chaos, and the coalition unable or unwilling to commit troops and money to keeping the peace and building a new regime, the insurgency grew in size and brutality. It would not be until four years later, after Rumsfeld’s departure, that the United States would adjust its strategy to the dynamics on the ground. And in that time…well, we know the numbers, right? Our self-serving memoirist never tells us how it feels to have made mistakes accounting for massive displacement and butchery. Nor, when he opens the book, does he describe how it felt to shake hands with a mass murderer, or to negotiate the opening that led to US aid during Saddam’s war with Iran – aid that included satellite photographs used to drop chemical weapons on defenseless people.
The upshot of all this is not that he should have been a clairvoyant, or that it is all his fault – many of his commanders were inadequate, the Bush Administration was dysfunctional. People fail to anticipate things, and as Rumsfeld constantly reminds us throughout his small-minded doorstopper, intelligence is fallible. No one can know the future, he wants us to acknowledge. “It is of note that during Bob McNamara’s confirmation hearing to become secretary of defense in 1961, not a single U.S. Senator asked him a question about Vietnam.” Yet this argument does not obviate McNamara’s responsibility for the choices he made in the 1960s, nor should it soothe Rumsfeld’s conscience four decades later.
In 1995, almost thirty years after he retired, Robert McNamara finally admitted that he was “wrong, terribly wrong” about the Vietnam War. “By then,” the New York Times obituary noted,
he wore the expression of a haunted man. He could be seen in the streets of Washington – stooped, his shirttail flapping in the wind – walking to and from his office a few blocks from the White House, wearing frayed running shoes and a thousand-yard stare.
This could be no consolation to the three million he helped to kill with his hubris and stupidity. But at least he attempted to face those demons, however inadequately. It is more, I’m afraid, than we will ever get from Donald Rumsfeld.
Greg Waldmann, a Senior Editor at Open Letters Monthly, is a native New Yorker living in Boston with a degree in International Affairs.