Politics & Policy

Understanding Donald Rumsfeld

It will be quite some time before history delivers its final verdict.

Despite continued disagreements on the left and the right about the legacy of George W. Bush, there is one Bush-administration official who still unites political observers: Donald Rumsfeld.

On the left, Democratic members of Congress and activists vilified Rumsfeld for his handling of the war in Iraq, Guantanamo, and the prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib; on the right, commentators called for Rumsfeld’s resignation less than seven months into his tenure because of his perceived inability to manage the Pentagon.

By the time President Bush essentially fired Rumsfeld after Republicans suffered sharp losses in the November 2006 elections, a USA Today/Gallup poll showed that Rumsfeld had a 57 percent unfavorable rating. During the 2008 presidential campaign, even Sen. John McCain took to calling Rumsfeld “one of the worst secretaries of defense in history.”

However, for a significant portion of his time in office, Rumsfeld was quite popular. Viewership ratings of Rumsfeld’s wartime press conferences during Operation Enduring Freedom, at which he displayed acerbic wit while parrying with a hostile press corps, for a time rivaled those of cable-news shows such as Hardball with Chris Matthews and Fox and Friends.

Washington Post reporter Bradley Graham chronicles the full span of Rumsfeld’s remarkable career in a surprisingly balanced and fair new biography, By His Own Rules: The Ambitions, Successes, and Ultimate Failures of Donald Rumsfeld. Graham does an excellent job of tracing the man’s meteoric rise in Washington, relaying insights from friends and associates about the famed Rumsfeld management style, which some call one of his biggest faults.

It is easy to forget that Rumsfeld had always been somewhat of a wunderkind. Elected to Congress at the age of 30, he went on to serve as a senior White House aide to President Nixon, U.S. ambassador to NATO, chief of staff to President Ford, and the youngest-ever secretary of defense. After leaving the Ford administration, he became a successful CEO and envoy or adviser to several presidents before returning to government in 2001 as the oldest-ever secretary of defense.

Throughout his career, Rumsfeld was often described as a micromanager, slow to make decisions, and at times harsh with subordinates. But it was a management style his superiors appreciated; they consistently promoted him in the political and corporate worlds. In his various positions in government and the private sector, he showed an uncanny ability to manage large organizations and difficult operations.

During his second stint in the Pentagon, perhaps the largest bureaucracy on earth, Rumsfeld papered the building with his infamous “snowflakes” — short memos dispatched to subordinates raising questions, expressing opinions, and giving guidance. “I want to run this department from my outbox, not my inbox,” he often told his senior staff. Some derided the snowflakes as distracting to their recipients, but as the low-level recipient of several snowflakes (I served as a political appointee in the Pentagon bureaucracy under Rumsfeld from 2005 to 2006), I can attest that they were a useful way for the secretary to convey his views on a myriad of issues to Pentagon officials he was unlikely to interact with on a regular basis.

Graham is perhaps most critical when describing Rumsfeld’s interactions with subordinates. The book is full of accounts from generals and civilians whom Rumsfeld brutally dissected in meetings. Graham quotes Doug Feith’s comment in his memoirs that Rumsfeld “bruised people and made personal enemies, who were eager to strike back at him and try to discredit his work.” But the narrative sheds little light on why Rumsfeld felt the need to handle himself in such a manner.

On the issue that caused Rumsfeld’s downfall — Iraq — By His Own Rules does not break much new ground, but it does provide useful context. The book makes clear that Rumsfeld’s supposed lack of planning for the postwar period needs to be viewed through the prism of his longtime interests in cutting costs and keeping American military deployments to a minimum. Rumsfeld had no interest in maintaining a significant troop presence in Iraq after Baghdad fell, and even less interest in establishing a flourishing democracy in the heart of the Middle East.

What is amazing is that the U.S. government as a whole did not resolve its contradictory opinions prior to the invasion. It is doubtful that Rumsfeld hid his views from his interagency counterparts.

As Bob Woodward’s work and the memoirs of George Tenet also suggest, a serious breakdown in the interagency process marked the prewar period. This was in part the fault of then–national security adviser Condoleezza Rice, whose emphasis on taking only consensus views to the president wasted much of the principals’ time and meant that problems tended to fester when there was no consensus.

But regardless of the genesis of the post-invasion debacle, it was Rumsfeld’s unwillingness to consider a change in strategy that led to his downfall. Rumsfeld’s commanders on the ground aided in this unwillingness, consistently advising him that additional forces were not required — a useful reminder that even in the era of the much-exalted Generals Petraeus, Odierno, and McChrystal, commanders are just as fallible as their civilian leaders.

The fallacies surrounding Rumsfeld’s persona have distracted many from accurately weighing the man’s shortcomings and appreciating his virtues; it will be quite some time before history delivers its final verdict on Donald Rumsfeld. But by looking beyond the hype, Graham has made a significant contribution to the first draft.

– Jamie M. Fly served in the Office of the Secretary of Defense and on the National Security Council staff from 2005 to 2009. He is executive director of the Foreign Policy Initiative.

Jamie M. Fly — Mr. Fly is executive director of the Foreign Policy Initiative. He served in the office of the secretary of defense and on the National Security Council staff from 2005 to 2009.

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