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Known and Unknown: A Memoir

Known and Unknown: A Memoir by Donald Rumsfeld. Sentinel, 2011, 815 pp.

Former secretary of defense Donald Rumsfeld admits he made a few mistakes. He regrets having referred to France and Germany as “old Europe” because they opposed a preventive war against Iraq. He wishes he could take back, “We know where they are,” when asked about WMD stockpiles in Iraq. And he is sorry that he dismissed the mass looting in post-invasion Iraq as “Stuff happens!” Above all, he says he should have insisted that Pres. George W. Bush accept his letter of resignation in May 2004 following the revelation of the scandalous American mistreatment of detainees at Iraq’s infamous Abu Ghraib prison. “More than anything else I have failed to do . . . I regret that I did not leave at that point.”

Rumsfeld’s memoir is important because he was a principal architect of the greatest US foreign policy disaster since the Vietnam War. Expect no apologies, however. Known and Unknown defends the decision to invade Iraq as a response to the 9/11 terrorist attacks while absolving Rumsfeld of any real responsibility for what went wrong in post-invasion Iraq. Indeed, according to Rumsfeld, invading Iraq was Bush’s idea, which he first broached to Rumsfeld on 26 September—15 days after the attacks. Bob Woodward and Rumsfeld biographer Bradley Graham (By His Own Rules: The Ambitions, Successes, and Ultimate Failures of Donald Rumsfeld, Public Affairs, 2009) tell a different story. Within hours after the 9/11 attacks, Rumsfeld told JCS chairman Richard Myers that the United States should consider striking Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein. The next day, in a meeting of Bush’s war cabinet, Rumsfeld asked if 9/11 offered an opportunity to attack Iraq. Bush himself recalls a 15 September meeting at Camp David in which Rumsfeld said that “Dealing with Iraq would show a major commitment to antiterrorism.”

Big mistakes were made in Iraq, but not by Rumsfeld. The size of the invasion force was not an issue. “Among Myers, [CENTCOM commander GEN Tommy] Franks, and me, there was no conflict whatsoever regarding force levels. If anyone suggested to Franks or Myers that the war plan lacked sufficient troops, they never informed me.” The real problems were a dysfunctional interagency policy process, a non–team playing secretary of state, and an out-of-control Coalition Provisional Authority in Baghdad. Rumsfeld believes that “the President did not receive, and may not have insisted upon, (emphasis added) a timely consideration of his options before he made a decision.” The culprit? National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice. “The most notable feature of Rice’s management of the interagency policy process was her commitment . . . to ‘bridging’ differences between the agencies, rather than bringing those differences to the President for decisions . . . Rice seemed to believe that it was a personal shortcoming on her part if she had to ask the President to resolve an interagency difference.” The result was that “fundamental differences remained unaddressed and unresolved,” among them the debate over how quickly—and via what mechanism—to transfer sovereignty to Iraq. Secretary of State Colin Powell presided over a State Department that “seemed to remain skeptical about President Bush and less than eager to implement his policies.” And an arrogant L. Paul “Jerry” Bremer III, picked to run the US occupation of Iraq, refused to report through the Defense Department, choosing to report instead directly to Bush and Rice. “The muddled lines of authority meant there was no single individual in control or responsible for Bremer’s work. There were far too many hands on the steering wheel, which, in my view, was a formula for running the truck into a ditch.”

Rumsfeld believes that Bush not only failed to discipline the interagency process but also mislabeled the war against Islamist extremists as a “war on terrorism.” The word war “focused people’s attention on military action, overemphasizing . . . the role of the armed forces.” More important, terrorism “was not the enemy but a tactic our enemies were using successfully against us. Saying we were in a war against terrorism was like saying we were in a war against bombers or we were waging a war on tanks, as opposed to a war against the people using those weapons.” Rumsfeld also chides Bush and Rice for embracing “far-reaching language about democracy” in Iraq and elsewhere in the Middle East. “I believed in expanding the frontiers of freedom where possible, but that goal had to be tempered by our limited ability to achieve it.” Rumsfeld suspects a connection between the failure to find WMD in Iraq and a “way to change the subject” by focusing on democratization as the primary purpose of invading Iraq.

Known and Unknown is of course about Rumsfeld’s entire career, not just his six-year stint as secretary of defense under Bush. A politically ambitious Washington player for over 30 years, Rumsfeld served as a member of Congress, assistant to Pres. Richard M. Nixon (who, of all people, once called Rumsfeld a “ruthless little bastard”), US ambassador to NATO, White House chief of staff to Pres. Gerald R. Ford, and later, Ford’s secretary of defense.

Yet it was Rumsfeld’s second performance at the Pentagon for which he will be remembered, and the judgment of history is likely to be harsh. The bill of indictment includes his multiple failures in Iraq, most notoriously an insistence on an invasion force too small to seize control on the country, his gratuitous intimidation and humiliation of military professionals, his bureaucratic megalomania, and his skill, impressively evident in his memoir, at side-stepping responsibility for bad decisions. Above all was his addiction to perfecting US conventional military supremacy at the expense of preparing for the politically messy, low-tech, irregular wars that have dominated the post-Soviet world and have long occasioned failed American military interventions in non-Western societies. (Rumsfeld claims that “the transformation agenda I supposedly brought to the Pentagon was not of my own making” but rather the product of Bush’s “explicit guidance to make the Defense Department ‘lethal, light and mobile’.”)

With good reason is Rumsfeld compared to Robert McNamara in their respective performances as secretary of defense. It is all there: the hard-charging CEO reputation, the inability to admit mistakes, the slick press conference performances, the arrogant disdain for professional military opinion, the excessive confidence in technological solutions, the conviction that leadership is simply good management, the abject failure to understand the nature of the war at hand—and finally, their departure from office as political liabilities for the presidents they served.

Rumsfeld is right: he should have insisted on leaving office back in 2004.

Jeffrey Record, PhD

Air War College

"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."

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