A Serious Man: the Return of Donald Rumsfeld

February 8, 2011 Topic: Muckety Mucks Region: United States Blog Brand: Jacob Heilbrunn

A Serious Man: the Return of Donald Rumsfeld

Don't hold your breath—Donald Rumsfeld isn't going to own up to his errors anytime soon.


[amazon 159523067X full]Donald Rumsfeld is a serious man. The cover of his engrossing, informative, and well-written memoir shows the former two-time defense secretary and fighter pilot wearing a fleece vest, brown shirt open at the neck, and blue jeans. He is casual but confident, at peace with himself, leaning against a wooden fence with mountains faintly in the background, presumably at his Jackson Hole retreat. He could be a wealthy business executive enjoying his retirement about to go horseback riding on his ranch. Not, in other words, the kind of guy who would order the torture of foreigners or anything else unpleasant. The photo on the back of the jacket flap displays a quite different Rumsfeld--middle-aged, probing, questioning, earnest, wearing large glasses, a suit and tie, and leather shoes with a hole in the sole. Deep cerebration is the message.

In many ways, the photos in Rumsfeld's book, and there are dozens of them, form some of the most interesting parts of it. They remind us not only of Rumsfeld's saga, but America's odyssey. The photos gradually become more complex, giving way from the assemblages of white men forming government cabinets to the multi-racial ones of the George W. Bush presidency. Rumsfeld zipped in and out of public life over the decades, seemingly a spent political force by the 1990s, only to reemerge in 1998 with his Rumsfeld Commission issuing dire warnings of a North Korean missile aimed at America in a few years (where is it?), then total, or seeming, resurrection when George W. Bush, in an act of filial impiety, tapped his father's former adversary to become his defense secretary.


Perhaps Rumsfeld's reemergence shouldn't have been altogether surprising. In the various photos of him a shrewd and sly grin often crosses his face. Rumsfeld, the former Princeton wrestler, has been a fighter all his life. His memoir is his last battle and one, it must be said, that, by and large, he fights well, collapsing only at the end when he retreats into defenses of the Iraq War that don't withstand serious scrutiny. Rumsfeld's tenure is a reminder of how a hugely popular official, which he was during the outset of the Iraq War, can come crashing down into utter ignominy. Rumsfeld went almost overnight from seer to villain. By 2006, after the GOP's drubbing in the midterm congressional elections, even the Decider decided that he had had enough and evicted Rumsfeld from the Pentagon.

But the very qualities that enraged Rumsfeld's detractors when he was defense secretary--his tart judgments and impatience--ensure that his book is extremely lively. Much of it is devoted to chronicling his early career as a congressman in the 1960s, when he supported civil rights legislation, and his service to Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford. Rumsfeld knew how to manuever to protect himself, turning down Richard Nixon, not once but twice when asked to take on political jobs. In 1972 Nixon asked him to become head of CREEP--the Committee to Reelect the President. Rumsfeld refused, telling him that the "`organ-grinders will all be in the White House.' I didn't have any desire to be the trained monkey." He also turned down becoming chair of the Republican National Committee. Years later he recounts that Nixon would seek to counsel him on his career, instructing him in a classic Nixon aside that "I should stop wearing glasses and use contact lenses instead."

He also settles scores. Condoleezza Rice, at a National Security Council meetings, took umbrage at Rumsfeld's attire. According to Rumsfeld,


one time Rice and I were sitting together in an NSC meeting, and I was wearing a pinstripe suit--one that I very well might have owned since the Ford administration. The suit was so well used that the pinstripes on the right leg above the knee were worn off. Rice noticed this, frowned, and pointed disreetly at my leg. Looking down at my suit, I noticed for the first time the missing pinstripes. `Gee,' I whispered to her with a smile, `maybe Joyce [Rumsfeld's wife] can sew them back on.' Condi's eyes widened."


The thrust is that Condi, always dressed elegantly, was a superficial twit, while he, Rumsfeld the stolid Midwesterner, was focused on the real task at hand. He sticks the shiv into her, observing that "I knew the burdens of the job of national security adviser were taxing for even the most seasoned foreign policy specialist and could be particularly so for someone with modest experience in the federal government and management." Her meetings, he says, were "not well organized." Rumsfeld tried to help her by sending notes that, he complains, seemed to be unappreciated: "She seemed unaccustomed to constructive suggestions, and not much changed for the better." Bad Condi!

Colin Powell gets drubbed as well. "Some of Powell's actions fostered an impression," Rumsfeld writes, "that he saw his service in the cabinet as a means of representing the State Department to the President as much as he saw it as representing the President at the State Department." Powell, in other words, had been captured by the State Department bureaucracy. L. Paul Bremer III is dismissed as being oblivious to indigenous Iraqi concerns: "it remained difficult to get him to accept the idea that Iraq belonged to the Iraqis, and that the Iraqis were entitled to their own culture and institutions." So the insurgency that developed was Bremer's fault, not Rumsfeld's. Even Bush comes in for a few jabs. While Bush was not the dope that he was often made out to be, Rumsfeld says, "NSC meetings with the President did not always end with clear conclusions and instructions."

But what would have been clear-cut? The problem isn't necessarily that the decisions about the Iraq War were ambiguous. It is that the premise for war was itself fatally flawed. On the issue of intelligence about Saddam's weapons of mass destruction, Rumsfeld breezily observes that "recent history is abundant with examples of flawed intelligence..." Well, yes. But not on the scale of launching a preemptive war against another country. Rumsfeld concludes that the "limits of intelligence...are a reality that should make us all humble."

But humility has never been Rumsfeld's long suit. It would be kind of shocking if he were to confess to the errors that led up to the Iraq War or that resulted in Abu Ghraib, probably the single biggest blow to America's image abroad in decades. It would create shock but not awe among readers of his tome if a penitent Rumsfeld were to emerge. No McNamarian effusion of tears for him. But if Rumsfeld is reluctant to concede error, he is hardly the first high-ranking official to do so. His memoir may be evasive, but evasion is the calling card of most memoirs. Trenchant and never less than stimulating, Rumsfeld's memoir perfectly reflects his character. In that sense it is entirely truthful.