Donald Rumsfeld’s Reincarnation

Four years after resigning, the former defense secretary speaks out to defend his record. Daniel DePetris reflects on his memoir.

Donald Rumsfeld is, by all indications, one of the most divisive characters the United States have to offer in the modern era. So the saying goes, “you either love him, or you hate him.”

Those who love and respect him, like former Vice President Richard Cheney, former Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, Doug Faith and every other neoconservative on the planet, describe Rumsfeld as a topnotch bureaucratic infighter who knows how to square off and crush his opponents. Those who hate him loath his sense of overconfidence, rashness and savvy in front of the television cameras, as well as his inability to admit wrongdoing or mistakes. The few in between simply remember him as the man who screwed up Iraq for three years before resigning in 2006.

For me, Rumsfeld was, and still is, full of ambiguity. At first, I was awed at the fact that he was never intimidated by the toughest questions from reporters in the Pentagon briefing room, or his refusal to cower to his detractors when the war became increasingly unpopular. But as the years went by, I slowly came to the realization that perhaps that confidence was arrogance in disguise — a manifestation of someone who blames everyone else while avoiding the fact that he also made some mistakes. Indeed, by the time President George W. Bush decided to go another way at the Pentagon, Rumsfeld was still unwilling to publicly admit that the war he took ownership of was out of control.

Of all the press conferences and briefings that Rumsfeld gave during his tenure, I remember one that occurred in the summer of 2006. By June of that year, sectarian violence in Iraq was in full swing as a result of the suicide bombing against the Golden Dome mosque, an icon of Shia Islam. Thousands of Iraqis were dying monthly, Baghdad was a city in anarchy, and American soldiers were sitting ducks in the middle of a civil war. Yet when asked about the situation, Rumsfeld reverted to his standard answer, criticizing the pessimists and refusing to acknowledge that a civil war was in fact occurring.

Fast forward five years and Donald Rumsfeld is making his own case to the public. His memoir, Known and Unknown (2011), is now out in the bookstores: a whopping 815 pages of personal reflections about his time as secretary of defense.

Some of the most controversial issues are discussed in the book including the Abu Ghraib Scandal (for which he handed the president his resignation); his spats with National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice, Secretary of State Colin Powell, irector of Central Intelligence George Tenet; even disagreements with the president himself.

Rumsfeld is steadfast in defending his own career by trying to distinguish himself from the people who were really at fault for America’s blunders in Iraq, like the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Ambassador Paul Bremer and a dysfunctional National Security Council. Rumsfeld goes so far as to question some of Bush’s decisions, as using the “war on terror” model instead of concentrating on what the fight was all about — combating Islamic extremism.

Today, it’s easy to sit in a comfortable chair and fault Rumsfeld for every bad decision that the United States made in Iraq. Doing so is technically permitted. Rumsfeld was defense secretary at the time, so he was ultimately accountable for all the mistakes emanating from the Pentagon. But in actuality, Rumsfeld is but one in a group of people that botched the Iraq mission after Saddam Hussein was quickly routed from Baghdad.

Perhaps this is what Rumsfeld, in his memoir, is trying to achieve. “I bear responsibility, but it’s not all my fault.”