The Skeptics

Rumsfeld Blames Iraq on Bush

My last post was on the acerbic memos Don Rumsfeld sent Condi Rice about the NSC’s disorganization under her watch (Esquire and the Washington Post have since written about the same thing). But Rumsfeld’s critique of Rice goes beyond mechanics. It criticizes her management objectives and therefore President Bush’s.* 

Rumsfeld writes that Rice tried to paper over differences between the principals rather than forcing decisions between them (pp. 325-326). That practice, he writes, left everyone unsure of what the President wanted and free to pursue conflicting courses. That this critique applies to Iraq will surprise no one that has paid attention to the subject. But it’s telling to see Rumsfeld say so. (p. 486).

Now it’s true, as Bob Woodward writes in Foreign Policy, that Rumsfeld uses information selectively in his book to pass the buck on invading Iraq and mishandling its occupation. Woodward shows that Rumsfeld says little about the times in the run up to the war where he asked the President, roughly: “What about Iraq?” He may never have explicitly pushed for war, as he claims, but asking that question repeatedly has a similar effect. By the way, here and here are memos Rumsfeld wrote in 2002 arguing that the White House decision to grant Woodward interviews was “a mistake by any measure” that was bound to cause dissension in the administration as people scrambled to defend themselves.

Woodward also points out that Rumsfeld ducks responsibility for the Army’s lack of preparation for the occupation. He complains about Generals Franks and McKiernan’s distaste for the task and pins the decision to appoint the overmatched Richardo Sanchez to the Army, CENTCOM, and the JCS, ignoring the Secretary of Defense’s power to select better commanders. He also writes, passively, that a “complicating” factor in planning for the occupation was the fact that doing so might indicate that the administration was set on war (p. 486). He doesn’t say who it complicated. Likewise, he insists that his generals agreed with him about troop levels, given that he solicited dissent, and none came. But senior officers got the impression that these requests were pro forma.

Still, the buck-passing, while unbecoming, is at least somewhat believable. A better NSC Advisor or President would have gotten his cabinet in line behind either a prolonged occupation or the short one Rumsfeld wanted. And having invaded, we’d have been better off cutting our losses and following Rumsfeld’s quick handover plan. That would not have prevented civil strife, but probably no plan would have, which is why the real mistake was having the war.

Rumsfeld didn’t make the Pentagon plan for a long occupation because he didn’t want one. To his credit, he never bought into the idea that Americans can be good state-builders abroad. He wanted a swift handover of power. He thought Bush’s talk about democratization was foolish, not just because Iraq lacks the raw materials for it, but because claiming such grandiose goals set the administration up for failure.

Rumsfeld says that the President agreed with him on the occupation plans, but probably developed second thoughts somewhere in the weeks after the invasion, along with Rice (p. 503), who he suspects of getting the President on his democratization kick (p. 499). That’s why Ambassador Jerry Bremer replaced Rumsfeld’s swift transition man, Jay Garner, and changed the occupation into something far more ambitious. While Bremer ostensibly worked for Rumsfeld, he dealt with the NSC. They cut Rumsfeld out of the loop (p. 506). So the most criticized decisions—letting Iraqi Army dissolve, the slow transition to Iraq self-rule, deep de-Ba’athification—were not Rumsfeld’s doing.

Rumsfeld doesn’t blame Bush directly for any bad outcome, but he does admit that the process that led to those outcomes is partially Bush’s fault. He writes that that President let meetings end without clear direction (p. 319), Rice run the NSC as she did (p. 329), and, most damningly, both DoD and State think he agreed with them about the Iraq occupation (p. 510). So it’s clear that Rumsfeld, especially given his life-long attention to management and responsibility, is laying a lot of blame on his former boss.

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