Magazine | April 4, 2011, Issue

Wrestling with History

Known and Unknown: A Memoir, by Donald Rumsfeld (Sentinel, 815 pp., $36)

One of the most incisive aphorisms of one of the finest aphorists of all time, La Rochefoucauld, goes like this: “We confess to little faults only to persuade ourselves that we have no great ones.” What is amazing is that La Rochefoucauld was able to hit upon this insight without ever having beheld the life and career of Donald Rumsfeld, or read his memoir Known and Unknown — for no better example of it could possibly exist.

Known and Unknown is a cradle-to-retirement panorama, and it is one in which any temperamental conservative can find much to admire. The writing evinces the literary equivalent of a tin ear, and the occasionally non-chronological presentation of the chapters is as distracting as it is unnecessary, but the parade of events set forth is a grand one and the parade’s impresario is of undeniable greatness. Yet the voice here has the ring of a tale too good to be fully true. Thus, during the narration of his second tenure as secretary of defense, the chapters in which most readers are likely to take the keenest interest, Rumsfeld admits to half a dozen or so verbal gaffes — the “old” versus “new” Europe remark and the “stuff happens” slip in the midst of the Baghdad riots, for example — but precious few misjudgments. He regrets not having resigned in the wake of the Abu Ghraib debacle instead of letting the president and vice president talk him into staying on; having misjudged the detainee problem as a legal rather than a political one; and maybe, just maybe, having allowed Gen. Tommy Franks to prematurely stop the flow of troops into Iraq after Apr. 9, 2003.

But that’s about it. Everything that goes really wrong, particularly with regard to the Iraq War, is someone else’s fault. So the planning for Stage IV of the Iraq War was irresponsibly scant? There was a lack of clarity about the prospective duration and nature of the occupation, and the wrong choices were left standing? The unforeseen Iraq insurgency was mishandled? All that and so much more was the Army brass’s fault, the CIA’s fault, the State Department’s fault if not Colin Powell’s personal fault, Jerry Bremer’s fault, and, occasionally, the result of President Bush’s indecisiveness and Condoleezza Rice’s failure to overcome it. Of course mistakes were made, particularly by the intelligence community, where Rumsfeld’s assessment holds the most water. It’s just that, in this immaculate-conception-like account of his secretarial tenure, none of them were his.

On second-order decision points the same pattern revealingly dominates. Why, after the end of major combat operations in Iraq, did Gen. David McKiernan maintain his office in Kuwait rather than relocate it to Baghdad? Rumsfeld claims to have experienced amazement when he learned this, unexpectedly seeing McKiernan on a C-130 transport headed from Baghdad to Kuwait City. How did Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez subsequently end up as combatant commander in Iraq when, as Rumsfeld says, he was not the right man for the job? Rumsfeld doesn’t know: “I do not recall being made aware of the Army’s decision to move General Sanchez into the top position.”

Just how unpersuasive this claim is becomes clear in light of Rumsfeld’s earlier insistence that, unlike some previous secretaries of defense who were content to rubber-stamp the judgments of the uniformed military in the review and promotion of three- and four-star officers, he insisted on an active role. Yet of events in 2003 Rumsfeld, he of the tight headlock on his general officers and combatant commanders, writes as if McKiernan’s duty post and Sanchez’s appointment are examples of “stuff happens.” Rumsfeld professes having no recollection of, let alone responsibility for, how any of this came to be.

#page#For such a wholesale exporting of secretarial responsibility to make even clinging sense to anyone who was paying attention at the time, storylines have to be crimped, contradictions muffled, selective amnesia and strategic omission employed, and press innuendo borrowed for prompts and otherwise absent evidence. The result is an 815-page snow job of blizzard scale, festooned with more logical curiosities than can possibly be listed here, let alone described in detail. (The memoir is even longer if one includes the website, wherein Rumsfeld has posted an electronic hernia’s worth of memos and other documents — of which more in a moment.) So just a few examples must suffice to give the flavor of the narrative.

Rumsfeld contends that Condoleezza Rice made a mess of the NSC job because she tried to bridge opposing views for the president rather than force him to decide up or down on discrete options. She simply refused, says Rumsfeld, to take his suggestions for improvement. When it suits his purpose, he speaks of going often to the president and getting his unstinting support, but when things did not go his way it seems not to have occurred to him that, as in this case, Rice was doing what the president asked her to do. So, too, with the role of the press: When it wrongly attacks Rumsfeld, he excoriates it; when it makes false claims about his principal competitors, he embraces it as opportunity and convenience dictate.

Want a contradiction? Rumsfeld complains to the president that Powell and especially Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage are leaking against the Pentagon; Powell retorts that Rumsfeld’s deputy, Paul Wolfowitz, is leaking against the State Department. Rumsfeld denies the possibility: If the Pentagon leaked he’d know it, and it can’t leak, he argues, because he told it not to. But a few chapters earlier he cites the voluminous leaks of Army brass over his virtuous cancellation of the Crusader artillery system. When Pentagon leaks reflect well on Rumsfeld’s brave purposes, they exist; when they run counter to those purposes, they don’t.

There is also a person who does not exist for all practical purposes: Dick Cheney becomes a virtual nowhere man as of January 2001. As close as the two were, and as much a part of the memoir as Cheney is in previous decades, Rumsfeld claims he didn’t talk much with the vice president during his time as George W. Bush’s secretary of defense. This claim, too, lacks verisimilitude, but then, because he was Rumsfeld’s best friend in the administration and his Oval Office protector, no good purpose would be served by discussing Cheney’s relationship with the president.

A key issue, of course, is what Rumsfeld knew about Jerry Bremer’s early May 2003 decision to dissolve the Iraqi Army and when he knew it. Rumsfeld, Sergeant Schultz–like, claims he knew nothing, yet the documents suggest otherwise. There is, in particular, an insightful memo by the late Peter Rodman that audited the decision trail on this issue, and which shows that the NSC affirmed, not once but three times, that the Iraqi Army was not to be disbanded. In the heat of the messy moment, Bremer changed course, and there is strong evidence that Rumsfeld knew what was happening and approved it, without telling the president, Rice, or any other principal. The evening before the decision was announced, Rumsfeld’s assistant, Larry Di Rita, spoke with the secretary by phone about it from Baghdad. Rumsfeld seems to remember none of this.

#page#With respect to Rumsfeld’s relationship with Bremer more broadly, the secretary claims that Bremer went his own way, repeatedly rejecting Rumsfeld’s counsel. He avers that Bremer thought himself the president’s man alone from the start, and speculates that Powell somehow suborned Bremer into accepting the State Department’s supposed position to prolong the occupation. Rumsfeld writes, “When Bremer departed for Baghdad, I believed he would work with [Gen. Jay] Garner to build on his momentum by creating an Iraqi transitional government. It took months before I realized that this [approach in Iraq] was not what Bremer had in mind.”

Months? As many times as Rumsfeld tells us that he went lickety-split to the president to discuss important policy issues one on one, on the paramount issue of what Bremer was doing in Baghdad, under his own oversight and supposedly in contravention of the president’s policy, he reports no such effort. What he does report is that months later, on Dec. 6, 2003, at the Baghdad airport, “I advised Jerry Bremer that the Department of Defense’s oversight of his activities as CPA administrator was ending.”

This is all very peculiar. The president put DOD in charge of the occupation, and therefore designated that Bremer work for Rumsfeld. And indeed, well into late summer 2003, as the documents show, the two seemed to be working together very well. Rumsfeld sent a torrent of often detailed, supportive, and frequently adulatory notes to Bremer — his 26 “Principles for Iraq–Policy Guidelines” memo of May 2003 is a stellar case in point — reflecting a relationship nothing like the dyspeptic one depicted in the book. The relationship does decay over time; both men’s personalities, as well as the deteriorating situation in which they found themselves, probably played a role. But Rumsfeld, it seems, moved to cut Bremer loose — and this without the president’s apparent concurrence or foreknowledge — only after things had become so toxic in Iraq that he wanted as little association with them as possible.

As to the State Department’s supposed views, Rumsfeld’s account is more peculiar still. It is true, as he states, that State (and the CIA) placed little stock in the idea that Ahmed Chalabi and his small band of exiles should be anointed as the provisional government of Iraq, as much of the upper directorate of the Office of the Secretary of Defense desired. (Rumsfeld denies that he ever thought of Chalabi’s playing any specific role.) What he neglects to say is that this reluctance was also President Bush’s view well before any moment of truth arrived in Baghdad.

Rumsfeld never offers any rationale for why the State Department desired to protract the occupation out to years on end. That’s because there was no such desire. Once chaos broke out after the statue of Saddam was pulled down in Firdos Square, Rumsfeld ordered or, amounting to the same thing, concurred with General Franks’s order that the flow of U.S. troops be stopped and reversed. There was no one to turn the Iraqi government over to as Baathist administrative structures dissolved, and there weren’t enough U.S. and allied troops with the right orders and training on hand to pacify the country. Powell wanted the occupation to last only until a handoff could be responsibly arranged, but that turned out to be longer than anticipated because the CIA misread the likely aftermath of the war (on this everyone agrees) and because Rumsfeld had allowed Phase IV planning to get fouled up even before the order to halt the flow of troops into the occupation zone. For Rumsfeld to blame Powell for an assessment based in part on the consequences of the former’s own misjudgments raises the concept of chutzpah to new heights.

#page#Cabinet officials, let it also be noted, don’t make first-order strategic decisions about the nature and scope of military occupations (or at least they aren’t supposed to). It was the president, not Powell, who decided not to leave Iraq to the whirlwind of possible civil war and to the international conclave of terrorists then descending on it. Besides, while in truth Powell did not oppose going to war if diplomacy failed to manage the threat, he was more mindful than other principals about the risks of occupying an Arab capital in the process, in 2003 no less than in 1991. That was certainly my impression while working as his speechwriter in 2003–04; more than once, he said to me in so many words: “We need to get the hell out of there.” So how does Rumsfeld reason that the reluctant warrior Powell, rather than Bremer, who worked for him, is the one who wanted to “own” Iraq for years unspecified? Alas, this remains a mystery.

The real question of what is “known and unknown” applies less to one of Rumsfeld’s most storied remarks to the press, and more to the workings of his own mind. He seems here to be suspended between deception and delusion, but exactly where is hard to know. Does he realize that he is spinning, or does he actually believe the version of events he offers up? The latter possibility seems the better bet. As one of his colleagues remarked, Rumsfeld had an uncanny ability to be there and not there at the same time, as a kind of third person once removed. It was as though his consciousness focused so intently on whether he was in control, winning key policy points, and ultimately shaping a heroic history that the reality of the momentous policy issues before the NSC became mere props of no real significance to him.

Whether this pattern also applies to Rumsfeld’s professional life before 2001 and to his personal life throughout would require someone who has known the man well for many years to say. As to the professional, at least, no one has captured the essence better than John A. Shaw, who served as deputy undersecretary of defense for international technology security from 2001 to 2005, and who, in his own words, “helped orchestrate Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld’s transitions to the Defense Department in both 1975 and in 2001.” A professed admirer of Rumsfeld’s many talents, he nonetheless observes that his former boss “is surprisingly addicted to avoiding responsibility for important downside results. The buck seldom stops, a la Harry S. Truman, there, on his desk.” Shaw added, in a reference to Rumsfeld’s relationship to General Franks, that “one of his great strengths, personal loyalty, proved perversely to be an additional flaw, as he accepted an inept strategy for post-combat Iraq but was unwilling to change people to change course.”

No one really knows why people think the things they think, and do the things they do. Rumsfeld notes in passing early in the memoir that “over the years people have asked me about my many years as a wrestler, and even tried to make it a metaphor for my approach to life.” All he cares to reply is that “the fact is that wrestling happened to be a sport I was suited for.” To all appearances, at least, he’s still at it. Known and Unknown is his latest move on the mat, an attempted takedown of truly grand proportions.

– Mr. Garfinkle is editor of The American Interest and author, most recently, of Jewcentricity: Why the Jews Are Praised, Blamed, and Used to Explain Just About Everything (Wiley, 2009).

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