Knowing Rumsfeld

Robert F. Ellsworth gives his estimation of Rumsfeld, the individual and defense secretary. Ellsworth says the neoconservatism Rumsfeld adopted made “planning for any difficulty ideologically unacceptable” on Iraq. Ellsworth was deputy secretary o

Robert F. Ellsworth gives his estimation of Donald Rumsfeld, the individual and defense secretary, and the political judgments that affected the formulation of Iraq and other policies. In an interview with National Interest online editor, Ximena Ortiz, Ellsworth says the neoconservatism Rumsfeld adopted made "planning for any difficulty ideologically unacceptable" on Iraq.

Ambassador Ellsworth is Vice Chairman of the Board of Directors of The Nixon Center and President of The National Interest, Inc. He was Chairman of Bob Dole's Presidential Campaign in 1988, Ambassador to NATO under President Nixon and worked in the Pentagon under Donald Rumsfeld as Deputy Secretary of Defense (and received the National Security Medal) during the Ford administration. Now a life-science venture capitalist in San Diego, he was a three-term Republican Congressman from Kansas. He served at sea in the U.S. Navy in World War II and the Korean Conflict.

TNI: Given what you know about Donald Rumsfeld in light of your past professional experience with him, to what degree do you believe he, rather than the president, formed the crucial policy decisions on Iraq?

RFE: I think that they worked very closely together, together with Vice President Cheney, to form the crucial policy decisions on Iraq.

TNI: Did you see his signature on anything in particular?

RFE: Well yes. They left to him the details of how to manage and plan for the invasion and its aftermath. And the difficulty was that the decision-making was shot through and through with the ideology of the neoconservatives, who insisted that it was going to be easy.

Remember, it was going to be a cakewalk and that therefore, planning for any kind of difficulty after the invasion was ideologically unacceptable because that would make the decision to invade more difficult. And I'm sorry to say that all three fell into that trap.

TNI: Why do you think that they bought the neoconservative line so thoroughly on Iraq?

RFE: I don't know. None of them is a neoconservative, but they certainly bought the neoconservative influence.

TNI: Given, again, what you know about Rumsfeld personally, why do you believe he did not at some point decide to change course?

RFE: That's a good question and I can't really answer it, except to say that at the same time that he was managing the Iraq War he was also trying to do something else, which is very difficult and very important, and that was to transform the military. Because the military is not ready to fight the kinds of wars that it's going to have to fight over the next ten or 15 years and he was trying to get it ready and they resisted that, because it clawed on their toes and oh how they hated him for that.

TNI: Let me ask you the same question in a slightly different way. To what degree were Rumsfeld's policy decisions affected by his personal style? Do you believe that his unwavering commitment to the neoconservative blueprint, as you so identified, was formed purely out of a long-held strategic vision, or were personal characteristics, say a certain stubbornness, also a factor influencing policy?

RFE: No, I don't think it was either personal characteristics or stubbornness. I think it was a sense on his part, a political judgment that the neoconservatives had the political power to impose their vision on the government and that they should be helped in that. And that was his decision. It was a political judgment.

And then his style kept him on track without deviating from that because his style is to be a consistent, stubborn manager and to believe that he knows how to get things done and that most of the people around him do not. That was his attitude particularly towards the military.

TNI: Having known him over the years, would you say that was always his style?

RFE: Yes.

TNI: Did you witness any change in Rumsfeld over the years?

RFE: Well I think he got wiser and smarter as he got older. He's been through some terrible personal agonies. He almost died from Legionnaires' disease about twenty years ago. Yes, he's gotten older and wiser, but basically and fundamentally, he's remained the same if you can follow that.

TNI: What do you believe gave Rumsfeld his staying power at the helm of DOD, given the escalating and politically perilous discontent on Iraq? He's known to be tough and abrasive, but do you believe he gained, before these elections, a certain intimacy with or commitment from the president?

RFE: Oh yeah, I think that the president and the vice president and Rumsfeld, all three, worked very closely together to stay the course and to try to get the right outcome in Iraq. But you remember that Rumsfeld, twice before over the last year, offered to the president to resign and the president wouldn't let him.

So Rumsfeld has not been blindly pursuing some personal agenda over there. He's seeing that there were difficulties and that he was part of the difficulties and he twice offered to resign but the president turned him down.

TNI: What in your view now is the potential for a change in broad policy on Iraq and otherwise now that Rumsfeld is gone?

RFE: I don't think that Rumsfeld going all by itself-I think that's very symbolic. But I think that a change in the approach to the Iraq problem is coming. I think that Mr. Gates, the newly designated secretary of defense, will bring some new ideas, and I think there are a few ideas around, mainly involving broadening the scope.