“He’s pure evil, isn’t he?” a British colleague ventured when I told him I was reviewing Donald Rumsfeld’s autobiography. That an intelligent, well-informed person who had initially supported the Iraq war might believe such a thing hints at the challenge that Rumsfeld faced in writing Known and Unknown (Sentinel, 832 pages). The result is a memoir that, despite some surprising omissions and unintentional revelations of its author’s failings, should be read by anyone who wants to understand how U.S. foreign and military policymaking really works. What it reveals about the inner workings of Departments of State and Defense, the National Security Council, the CIA, and the U.S. military’s uppermost echelons is neither attractive nor reassuring.
Known and Unknown, all of whose proceeds will go to military charities supported by the Rumsfeld Foundation, also happens to be extraordinarily readable—crisp, fast-moving, and almost entirely free of jargon. It is also surprisingly free of rancor given that its purpose, like all such books, is partly to settle scores and rebut what the author considers to be erroneous versions of his history. And even though a large chunk of Known and Unknown is devoted to answering charges and dispelling myths, some of the book’s most interesting sections are those that deal with Rumsfeld’s remarkable career before joining the administration of George W. Bush at the age of 69.
Although you would hardly know it from his contemporary reputation, Rumsfeld had a long and illustrious public life before he became world-famous—and infamous—as Bush’s septuagenarian secretary of defense. That public life began in 1962 when he was elected to Congress at the age of only 29. And over its four decades, he accumulated a formidable weight and variety of experience. At various times and among other positions, Rumsfeld served as U.S. ambassador to NATO, as President Ronald Reagan’s special envoy to the Middle East, as President Gerald Ford’s chief of staff as well as his secretary of defense, as a successful CEO of both G.D. Searle and Co. and General Instrument Co., and on President Bill Clinton’s Ballistic Missile Threat Commission.
For over almost half a century, Rumsfeld met almost everyone in politics. Moreover, he somehow turns up wherever dramatic things are happening, whether it’s a balcony overlooking the riots during the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago, the 1970 funeral of Egyptian dictator Gamal Abdel Nasser—or at President Ford’s side in 1975 at the moment Sarah Jane Moore fired a pistol whose bullets narrowly missed both their heads. One surreal anecdote finds Rumsfeld in Las Vegas in 1969 being introduced to Elvis Presley by their mutual friend Sammy Davis Jr. (Elvis proceeded to interrogate Rumsfeld, then running President Richard Nixon’s Office of Economic Opportunity, about the state of the U.S. Army.)
It is a telling anecdote, because, despite his reputation as an ogre and his talent for making enemies within the Defense Department during both times he ran it, Rumsfeld seems to have had many unlikely friendships and to have been unconstrained by ideology or partisan feeling in making them. One of the first friends he made as a young Republican congressman was the radical activist Allard Lowenstein. He always enjoyed warm relations with Vice President Hubert Humphrey (though not with Lyndon Johnson or Nixon), urged his Freedom Rider friend James Farmer to run for Congress, and later was close enough to Democratic Senator Bill Bradley to contribute to his 2000 presidential campaign.
None of this jibes with Rumsfeld’s media image as a cantankerous ideologue and arrogant bully; nor does the engaging, mildly perplexed tone of the book. Its 800 pages often suggest a genuinely inquiring mind compelled to question its own assumptions and those of others while confronting intellectual inertia. Hence the infamous “Known and Unknown” speech delivered in June 2002 that Rumsfeld, with characteristic defiance, has used for his memoir’s title.
Rumsfeld’s point in the speech was that it was vital for a defense establishment to try to plan not only for the easily imagined “known unknowns,” but also for the truly unexpected, dangerously unpredictable “unknown unknowns.” Though it was a fairly obvious lesson of the 9/11 disaster, and though it seems to have been borne out in economic terms by the nature of the 2008 financial meltdown, his phrasing provoked mockery, primarily from people who hadn’t read it or heard it and didn’t understand the complexity of the view he was expressing.
The book does not start with his birth in Chicago, family background (humble), or education (Princeton on scholarship, where Adlai Stevenson inspired him to go into politics), but in 1983, with an account of Rumsfeld’s now notorious visit to Baghdad. He was then President Reagan’s envoy to the Middle East, tasked with exploring the possibility of better relations with Iraq, then seen as marginally less hostile and dangerous to the U.S. than Iran and Syria. His account of his meetings with Saddam Hussein and Iraqi foreign minister Tariq Aziz is unembarrassed. At one point in the conversation with Saddam, the pistol-packing dictator observes that of all Western nations, “France in particular understands the Iraqi view.” Rumsfeld writes in response, “Over the years that followed, that particular remark came to my mind on more than one occasion, and I never had cause to doubt it.”
This chapter is followed by an even more interesting one relating Rumsfeld’s experience in Lebanon that same year, where he was nearly killed in a rocket attack on the U.S. Ambassador’s residence, and his own role in the U.S. government’s disastrous decision to pull out from that country after the terrorist attack on the Marine base in Beirut. Rumsfeld was all too aware of Syria’s ruthless, patient manipulation of the chaos in Lebanon, of the dangers of different American government agencies sending mixed messages to someone like Syrian dictator Hafez al-Assad (“mercy was not a defining characteristic of the Syrian regime”), and of the risk that would accompany anything that looked like panicked scuttle.
As he recalls it, however, Vice President George Bush, Defense Secretary Casper Weinberger, and White House Chief of Staff Jim Baker together successfully pushed the immediate withdrawal of all U.S. forces. This included the military advisers that the U.S. had just promised to Lebanon’s beleaguered President Amine Gemayel, to whom Rumsfeld had to convey news of this American betrayal. Rumsfeld’s firsthand experience of the foreign policy debacle in Lebanon had a profound effect on his future actions as defense secretary, cementing not only his belief that in international relations “weakness is provocative” but also his lifelong dislike for George Bush Sr.
Rumsfeld’s trips to Vietnam as a congressman would also play a major role in his thinking decades later. Beginning with his first visit to Saigon in 1966, Rumsfeld was disturbed by the difference between the situation on the ground and the Johnson administration’s upbeat reports, and he became a staunch advocate of the policy of Vietnamization by which the United States would train its South Vietnamese allies and progressively leave the battlefield to them. His consistent skepticism about the war prompted Henry Kissinger, then a bitter opponent but later a friend, to flash peace signs at him when they passed in the corridors of the Nixon White House.
It was the Vietnam experience that made Rumsfeld wary of keeping too many troops on the ground in Afghanistan and Iraq, and that prompted him to oppose a proposed occupation of Iraq. That is not a typo. Contemporary critics assumed that Rumsfeld and his myrmidons were enthusiastic about a long American occupation. The opposite was true. According to Rumsfeld, he wanted to hand over administration to Iraqis as soon as possible, and Colin Powell, the State Department, and Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) head Paul Bremer were the ones who felt that the country was not yet ready to run itself. (My own feeling, as someone who witnessed the early months of Iraq’s liberation, is that it was the incompetent manner, not the fact of occupation, that helped foster insurgency, and that Iraq very much needed a period of coalition suzerainty during which effective new institutions could be created.)
Rumsfeld’s almost obsessive concern with the lessons of Vietnamization and the dangers of fertilizing a culture of dependency in countries with large deployments of U.S. forces played a large part in his much-written-about resistance to increasing troop numbers in Iraq. Indeed, Rumsfeld came at the Iraq war in a manner entirely different from that of the caricatured Rumsfeld of my friend’s nightmares. The book features a declassified document, written for President Bush in October 2002, that Rumsfeld calls the “Parade of Horribles”—listing 29 ways in which the military overthrow of Saddam Hussein could go horribly wrong. These included a failure to find WMDs, “poor U.S. management” leading to unrest and fracture, and the possibility that the post-Saddam effort “could take eight to ten years, thereby absorbing U.S. leadership and military and financial resources.”
As Known and Unknown reveals, Rumsfeld never signed on to the mission of bringing democracy to Iraq and the Arab Middle East. Rumsfeld describes his own view of the role of U.S. troops:
They were to help the Iraqis put in place a government that did not threaten Iraq’s neighbors, did not support terrorism, was respectful to the diverse elements of Iraqi society; and did not proliferate weapons of mass destruction. Period. The aim was not to bestow on it an American-style democracy, a capitalist economy, or a world-class military force.
This way of thinking actually puts Rumsfeld more in line with some of his harshest critics than it does with those, like his deputy Paul Wolfowitz, with whom he has for so long been ignorantly lumped. Rumsfeld points out that the U.S. government had “no template” for “the kind of postwar planning that proved necessary in Afghanistan, Iraq, and for that matter in Kosovo, Bosnia, and elsewhere.” Nor was there “a single office that could take charge of the military and civilian elements of postwar reconstruction.”
In January 2003, the president decided that the Department of Defense should coordinate both postwar planning and postwar reconstruction. According to Rumsfeld, however, this decision was contested and even subverted by an uncooperative State Department. Even before this, in early 2002, State had obstructed the Pentagon’s efforts to arrange a conference of all the different external or exiled Iraqi groups, and also the discussion of an Iraqi Interim Authority that would bring together Iraqis of all parties and ethnic groups in a temporary national coalition. Amazingly, and to the discredit of the whole administration, the National Security Council was still debating whether there should be such an interim authority as well as how long it should serve, as late as March 10, 2003—five days before the war began.
The impression conveyed by Known and Unknown is that Condoleezza Rice deserves particular criticism for the failure of the planning process. As national security adviser, Rice was, according to Rumsfeld, “committed to ‘bridging’ differences between agencies rather than bringing those differences to the president for decision.” This approach actually led to more rather than less disharmony in government, as intra-department battles ended up being fought through leaks because they were not resolved in the Situation Room. If Rice’s personal “aversion to decisions in favor of one course or another” had not been bad enough, her NSC “avoided detailed records” so that “attendees left meetings with differing views of what had been decided.” And so, Rumsfeld concedes, the United States went to war without the president and Rice having chosen between competing visions of State and Defense for postwar administration. The chaos and confusion that followed the successful prosecution of the initial phase of the war only added to the policy haze.
There was a perception, fed by adroit leaking from within the permanent Pentagon bureaucracy, that Rumsfeld mistreated and wrongly overruled his generals, and that this is what accounted for many of the problems in 2003. But some of the stories Rumsfeld relates of obstructive and otherwise unprofessional behavior on the part of those generals almost beggar belief—and inadvertently reveal Rumsfeld’s disturbing lack of control over his own department.
The trouble at the top began immediately following the campaign to defeat Saddam’s army. The war’s frontline commander, General Tommy Franks, suddenly retired, despite Rumsfeld’s pleas, rather than wrestle with the complexities of postwar administration. Franks notified Rumsfeld that General David McKiernan would take over as senior commander in Iraq. But returning from a visit to Baghdad on April 30, 2003—the day before, at Franks’s urging, Bush was to give a speech announcing the end of “major combat operations”—Rumsfeld was startled to encounter McKiernan on his plane heading to Kuwait. It turned out that, rather than taking up residence with the troops in Iraq, McKiernan was popping in once a week “to check on things” and, in Rumsfeld’s view, “did not seem to think of himself as the commander in charge of ground operations.” Indeed, McKiernan “seemed to have removed himself from the critical daily responsibilities” of managing (admittedly top-flight) division commanders like Generals David Petraeus, Raymond Odierno, and James Mattis.
Two months later Rumsfeld “learned that there would finally be a full-time military commander” in Iraq in the person of Lieutenant General Ricardo Sanchez. Rumsfeld realized “Sanchez was not only the most junior three-star general in Iraq, [he was] the most junior three-star in the entire U.S. Army.” He had previously commanded a 15,000-man division (though not in major combat operations) and lacked the experience to lead a force 10 times that size and a coalition of more than 30 countries. It is strange enough that the permanent Pentagon bureaucracy and the army brass would give their country’s most important and challenging combat command to such an inexperienced and junior general, but it is actually more shocking that Rumsfeld had no role in the appointment.
A few months later Rumsfeld discovered that the unfortunate Sanchez was still working with only 37 percent of the staff he needed for a headquarters tasked with running the training of Iraqi forces, the care of detainees, and the engagement of a growing terrorist threat. He blames the Army, the U.S. Central Command, and the Joint Chiefs of Staff for failing to provide Sanchez with proper headquarters. But it seems extraordinary that the secretary of defense himself was so out of the loop in the cabinet department he headed.
Indeed, despite the many stories about his tendency to micromanage and his blizzards of memoranda, Rumsfeld seems to have been far too hands-off. By his own account, Rumsfeld deferred to those generals who, between the capture of Baghdad in 2003 and his own resignation in November 2006, consistently stated that they did not require more troops to carry out the mission in Iraq. Some of those generals later tried to claim that they had wanted more boots on the ground and were deferring to the secretary’s wishes—a dereliction of duty if true. But the evidence here and on Rumsfeld’s website suggests that Abizaid and others were strongly opposed to the surge that finally put those boots on Iraqi soil.
Rumsfeld and the generals who also got it wrong can be forgiven to the degree that it was and to some extent still is holy writ in some military circles that more troops means more targets for terrorists and more provocation of a febrile or xenophobic population. It took the wisdom of General Jack Keane and Frederick W. Kagan, the designers of the surge, and the implementation skills of David Petraeus, to draw the right lessons from successful counterinsurgencies of the past. By then, Rumsfeld was gone.
Rumsfeld admits to a number of regrets and mistakes, including a failure to cultivate Turkey in the run-up to the Iraq war (if that country had allowed a U.S. division to attack Saddam from the North, it might have made the post-invasion insurgency less likely) and a failure to include Congress in some of the bigger decisions of the era. He also cites with regret several occasions when he, his public relations team, and the administration in general allowed critics to win by default. But it is not clear even now if Rumsfeld understands the extent to which his office’s failings in that field helped lose the battle for hearts and minds at home—and jeopardized it on the ground.
Victoria Clarke, who ran Rumsfeld’s PR operation, was responsible for the brilliant embedding program that showed such faith in the U.S. military. But in every other respect, Clarke’s efforts were a disaster. Apart from the Jessica Lynch and Pat Tillman debacles, she failed to counter toxic myths such as America’s role in the (exaggerated) looting of the Iraq museum, the alleged destruction of Babylon’s ruins by the Marines, and the systemic practice of torture by U.S. Army guards at Abu Ghraib. All these and other myths were eagerly propagated by an often irresponsible, ignorant, and prejudiced media, but it was the responsibility of Rumsfeld, Clarke, and the others to understand the hostile media environment in which they were working. And they did not.
Despite its length, there are many moments in Known and Unknown when one wishes that Rumsfeld had gone into greater detail about important questions, not least his theories about the missing weapons of mass destruction. And the book’s apologia pro vita Rumsfeld would also have been more convincing if it had been less disingenuous and more direct. For example, in a chapter on the NSC, he writes that “the president did not always receive, and may not have insisted on a timely consideration of, his options before he made a decision, nor did he always receive effective implementation of the decisions to be made.”
Here, and elsewhere, Rumsfeld hints at the disastrous degree to which Bush hired people who were incompetent or treacherous and did not dispose of them when their treachery and incompetence were revealed; that Bush did not understand the importance of forcing cabinet members and departments to work together; and that he was fatally complacent about the implementation of policy. Known and Unknown, a gripping as well as historically vital book, is honest enough in its accretion of detail to suggest that another person who was fatally complacent about his own and his staff’s effectiveness was Donald Rumsfeld himself.