The premise of Adam Garfinkle’s review of Donald Rumsfeld’s memoir Known and Unknown (April 4, 2011) is that Rumsfeld evades responsibility for large matters that did not go well by accepting responsibility for small matters that did not go well. To bolster this, Garfinkle mentions an incident in which I was supposedly involved. He writes that I “spoke with the secretary by phone” from Baghdad on the evening before the decision to disband the Iraqi army was announced. Garfinkle presents this as one piece of evidence that “Rumsfeld knew what was happening and approved it, without telling the president, Rice, or any other principal,” which Garfinkle alleges that Rumsfeld denies in his memoir.
Memory is a tricky thing. I do not remember the conversation that Mr. Garfinkle recounts. Beyond this, though, Garfinkle’s review approximates the offense of which he accuses his subject, by missing the rich forest of Rumsfeld’s life and focusing on the trees right in front of him.
I acknowledge my own lack of distance and objectivity. I had a close association with Rumsfeld during the Bush administration and since; he cites me in the book as one of several readers of drafts along the way to completion. But I think I’m owed a chance to offer some further perspective, since Garfinkle brings me in.
I was in Iraq in April and May of 2003 to assist Jay Garner, who led the reconstruction team; I served as a policy connection for Garner back to the Pentagon and the inter-agency team working on post-conflict Iraqi political developments. What I remember about the decision to disband the Iraqi army does not include any discussions with Rumsfeld. I recall speaking with Rumsfeld from Iraq just once or twice in two months, and not about this topic. I do remember flying with Bremer and others from Kuwait or Qatar up to Baghdad — Garner had gathered some of us to go down from Iraq to meet Bremer when he first arrived in theater. On the flight to Baghdad, I recall, Bremer was keenly focused on two things: His forthcoming orders to 1) disband the Iraqi army and 2) effectively outlaw the Baath party.
My impression then and today is that “Washington” was quite aware of these initial Bremer decisions. When it came to early Iraq policy, though, “Washington” had two primary centers of activity. One was the policymaking apparatus, in which Paul Wolfowitz, Ryan Crocker, Steve Hadley, Zal Khalilzad, Doug Feith, Bill Luti, and others were paying close attention to the political developments, the transition from Garner to Bremer, and other such matters. Garner and I reached back to that group multiple times a week for guidance, reporting, etc. Crocker and Khalilzad also came to Baghdad to assist with the political discussions.
The other center of activity was around military employment, coalition-force management, and the like. Rumsfeld, Gen. Dick Myers of the Joint Chiefs, Gens. Tommy Franks and John Abizaid in CentCom, and their subordinate commanders focused on this. There were a lot of issues under consideration, including a major force rotation as combat-operations units that had been in theater for many months in some cases were cycled out and their replacement units came in.
This is not to suggest Rumsfeld and those occupied with force planning and command were unaware of the policy decisions being made, and I don’t think he intends to leave that impression in his memoir. What Rumsfeld is clear about, though, is that Bremer was granted significant authority by the U.S. government and by U.N. resolution, and that Bremer used that authority according to his own best judgment. Bremer also was in frequent contact with the policy/political apparatus of official Washington, including Condi Rice, Colin Powell, and possibly Wolfowitz, Hadley, and others at State, Defense, and the National Security Council. Rumsfeld in his memoir simply describes the way decisions were being made, for better or worse.
Contrary to Garfinkle’s broader premise, Rumsfeld accepts responsibility for many big things, too. He devotes significant ink to things that he might have done better or differently, and devotes an entire chapter to the idea in “The Road Not Traveled.” In that chapter, Rumsfeld talks about his and others’ overreliance on legal advice at the expense of political sensitivity, in particular with respect to presidential war powers and enemy detention. Rumsfeld was aware of and engaged in these decisions, and acknowledges, “I, too, was guilty of thinking that the legal questions were preeminent.” Later, he says, “As a former member of Congress, I might have been better attuned to the need for congressional buy in on such potentially difficult and controversial matters.”
This is just one example of many like it in the book in which Rumsfeld accepts responsibility not just for “small matters,” as Garfinkle describes, but for the most consequential matters the administration faced. Rumsfeld also describes the limitations of institutions, including the Department of Defense, in addressing the challenges we face today. He is both descriptive in acknowledging the Pentagon’s and his own shortcomings, and prescriptive in addressing what might be done about them.
The large matter Garfinkle seems to have missed completely in his review, though, is the arc of Rumsfeld’s consequential career in both public and private life, as covered in the book. As defense secretary in the 1970s, Rumsfeld was the essential pre-Reagan Cold War check against the tendency to accept strategic parity with the Soviet Union as envisioned by Nixon and Kissinger; he was an architect of U.S. Middle East policy for Reagan, and reshaped the national-security apparatus for the post–Cold War challenges of the 21st century. In between all that, he was chairman and CEO of two Fortune 500 companies and non-executive chairman of a third company, a pharmaceutical start-up that is now a successful and important public company.
In setting up the premise of his review, Garfinkle cites La Rochefoucauld as an authority in the matter of ignoring large matters for small matters. A more dispassionate reading of Rumsfeld’s memoir might call to mind another La Rochefoucauld aphorism: “Everyone complains of his memory, and no one complains of his judgment.”
Lawrence Di Rita