Rumsfeld: A Personal Portrait, by Midge Decter (Regan, 240 pp., $24.95)
In the summer of 2001, the smart money in Washington was betting that Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld would be the first member of the Bush cabinet to resign. There was rumored to be a Pentagon pool on the date of his departure; but, to quote the subject of Midge Decter’s new book, “The only thing we know for certain is that it is unlikely that any of us knows what is likely.” A few months later, convinced feminists were calling him “Rumstud,” and optometrists were selling out of the rimless frames he had made a fashion statement to middle-aged executives yearning for mojo by association.
This slim, quick-reading volume provides a glimpse of this extraordinary man. It does not pretend to be a comprehensive biography, and in some respects is very cursory. One gets mere hints of his spirit as athlete and adventurer. He was a champion wrestler and naval aviator, ran with the bulls at Pamplona, and once — as a congressman — apprehended a fleeing criminal. Age never dampened his physical courage, and Rumsfeld famously dashed from his office on 9/11 to tend to the injured.
When he was called upon to return to the Pentagon in 2001, he had nothing to prove. Life, as he said, was good. He had accomplished more than most men will in their professional lives, and was past the age when many would have retired. In the 1960s he was a four-term congressman, who — as leader of a group of Young Turks (“Rumsfeld’s Raiders”) — helped secure Gerald Ford’s ascent to the office of minority leader; Ford later made Rumsfeld the youngest secretary of defense in history. In 1977, he became CEO of the Searle pharmaceutical company — where he became known as “The Axeman,” a pitiless downsizer who fired employees and sold off unprofitable assets. When he arrived, Searle stock sold for $10; several years later Monsanto bought the company for $65 per share. It was a great achievement for a businessman who had started out as an assistant watermelon seller.
The Pentagon Rumsfeld inherited in 2001 was badly in need of reform. For the Clinton administration, it had been bureaucratic dumping ground; lack of leadership had allowed the department to fragment into its numerous tribes. The acquisition system was weakened by politics, and promotions were marked by cronyism. Congressional controls and oversight requirements had blossomed, providing a case study in Parkinson’s Law: In 1975, the Defense Authorization Bill was 75 pages, but by 2001 it had grown to 988, even though defense manpower was down by a third and defense outlays as a percentage of GDP had declined by 40 percent.
Furthermore, for all the money being spent on defense, there was no clear national strategy. Rumsfeld turned to Andrew Marshall, longtime head of the Pentagon Office of Net Assessment, who had impressed him in his first tour in the 1970s. Marshall produced a strategic vision that highlighted the need for joint war-fighting, expeditionary forces, flexibility, and technological adaptability — emphasizing networks over weapons platforms, precision effects over big-ticket programs. The overarching concept was Defense Transformation, a means of reconceptualizing threat assessment and balancing risks with resources to cope with a rapidly changing global security environment.
Unfortunately, the Department of Defense is not Searle pharmaceuticals. The virtues of private-sector management are, in the public sector, considered deadly sins. The Axeman faced employees he could not fire, assets he could not sell off, a dysfunctional board of directors (namely, Congress), and no threat of bankruptcy to discipline the process. His first eight months on the job were frustrating, or so it was reported. The New York Times ran a story averring that “Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld . . . was declaring war on bureaucracy in the Pentagon” — this in the morning edition of September 11, 2001.
The terror attacks that day gave Rumsfeld the opportunity to sidestep bureaucratic channels and test Transformation directly on the battlefield. On orders of the president, he began to plan the first 21st-century war. Looking at Rumsfeld’s history, one understands how he was able quickly to conceptualize the scope of the effort necessary to meet the terrorist threat. His views are marked by an unstrained consistency in policy positions, derived from basic principles: peace through strength, loyalty to friends, and certain punishment for transgressors. After the 1985 hijacking of the cruise ship Achille Lauro, during which disabled American Leon Klinghoffer was shot in his wheelchair and thrown overboard, Rumsfeld made a speech in which he called terrorism a form of “outright warfare” that the U.S. should take immediate steps to deter. He advocated attacking terrorists on their home ground, rather than allowing them to choose their own targets. His words were prophetic, but it took 9/11 to prove the point.
It is an improbable historical coincidence that Rumsfeld was in the ideal position to put his 16-year-old strategic framework into action. The nine-week war in Afghanistan silenced many of his former critics, particularly those who preemptively uttered the word “quagmire.” Throughout the book Decter takes a certain pleasure in reprinting quotes that pundits wish they had never made.
Beyond validating the Transformation paradigm, the war also made Rumsfeld a star. Millions would tune in to his Pentagon briefings, a startling fact when you think about it: Did anyone set his VCR to catch Les Aspin? His speaking style is artful and direct, precise without being wooden. His turns of phrase are witty and unexpectedly philosophical, especially compared with most discourse in relentlessly wonkish and humorless Washington. The collection of aphorisms known as “Rumsfeld’s Rules” should be required reading for anyone pursuing a career in government or business. He reached a pinnacle of sorts when, in November 2002, People magazine declared him a sex symbol. Pretty good for a 70-year-old grandfather of six. And Decter points out that he could be thought a “studmuffin” for the very reason Bill Clinton could not: He was not self-conscious about it, he did not seek it, and deep down he did not care. Clinton had the charm of the seducer. Decter describes the essence of Rumsfeld’s charisma as “manliness.”
This book is a very affecting personal portrait, though it’s a bit of a shame that the author does not insert herself much into the narrative. She makes her presence felt more in the acuity of her insights — she observes, for example, that French opposition to war in Iraq but not in Afghanistan may be explained by the fact that the former was an expression of American strength, and that the latter arose from American weakness. She also offers a good explanation of the difference between power and celebrity — power being essentially something that exudes from within, celebrity being a projection of the celebrants.
As Decter’s excellent book makes clear, Rumsfeld is a man of power, not celebrity. The media, with their passion for manufacturing story lines, seek new and interesting wrestling matches: Rumsfeld vs. Powell; Rumsfeld vs. Tenet; Rumsfeld vs. Rice. But as Rumsfeld himself says, “If you are not criticized, you may not be doing much.” And it is noteworthy that in these purported matchups he always gets top billing.
–James Robbins is a national-security analyst and a contributor to National Review Online.