May 14, 2011

The Rumsfeld Diaries

Donald H. Rumsfeld has a résumé that might make even God a bit envious. Princeton wrestler; Navy pilot; U.S. representative by the age of 30; counselor to the President of the United States; U.S. ambassador to NATO; White House chief of staff; chief executive of two Fortune 500 companies. He was the youngest Defense Secretary in U.S. history—and also the oldest.
Yet, to paraphrase Euripides: Those whom the gods would destroy, first they endow with golden résumés. Rumsfeld's stewardship of George W. Bush's Iraq War has left his once-undented reputation looking like it was hit by a roadside IED. His critics blame him for—where to begin?—going after Saddam Hussein in the first place, the lack of much-touted WMDs, the looting of the Iraqi National Museum, the obscenities of Abu Ghraib, water-boarding, Guantánamo, and pretty much everything else. By the time Bush asked for his resignation—one that Rumsfeld writes he'd already twice volunteered—Rummy had been teed up by journalists, quick-draw historians, and the left-wing punditariat as a Robert Strange McNamara 2.0. They even kind of look alike.
Rumsfeld may also be the only cabinet secretary in American history to have blurted out spontaneous Zen koans in the midst of press conferences. His now famous utterance about "known knowns"—and "known unknowns"and "unknown unknowns"—has not only been turned into poetry (albeit by mischievous satirists) but has also been set to music. Now it's the title of a book.
I've known Don Rumsfeld for 15 years, and I approachedKnown and Unknown with some trepidation. I was against the Iraq War from the outset. After its brilliant and efficient initial phase, I became deeply disillusioned. Like many of my generation, I felt I'd seen this movie before, in the late 1960s. I'd read Bob Woodward's books and a number of others that filled me with anger and left the unpleasant aftertaste that a man I admired had plunged the country into another awful quagmire. And that he'd done it, moreover, with what his old boss might call "Grecian" hubris.
Known and Unknown changed my mind. Rumsfeld doesn't suffer from Testosterone Deficit Syndrome, and he comes at the reader with his jaw full out. Yet even his critics will have to strain to assert that he's dishonest. He takes his share of blame for the Administration's overemphasis on WMDs. (There were, he writes, many other valid reasons for taking out Saddam Hussein—among them, Saddam's more-than-numerous violations of U.N. resolutions.) He makes no claims to being a PR genius and acknowledges that the "Old Europe" crack didn't help. But he insists America did the right thing in Iraq and that he would do it again. He believes that Bush 41 should have finished the job on the first go-around, but he doesn't buy into the Oedipal theory, much in vogue, that Bush 43 went back to upstage his old man.
Readers will be reminded that Rumsfeld has been something of a Republican Zelig. Known and Unknown opens with his famous 1983 handshake with Saddam in Baghdad. Pages later, he's under rocket attack in Beirut, sidestepping pools of blood at the presidential palace. Then there he is—oh, so wisely—turning down Nixon's offer to head up CREEP, the exquisitely titled Committee to Re-Elect the President. Later he's in the White House Situation Room on Apr. 29, 1975, as Saigon was being evacuated, insisting America not end its saddest engagement with yet another lie.
Later still, he's in the motorcade with President Ford when—look out!—their car is accidentally rammed by four teenagers, leaving Ford with a nasty bump on his head. A few days afterward, as the two left the St. Francis Hotel in San Francisco, Rummy suggested Ford move quickly to the limo so that no one would notice the ding. (Chevy Chase didn't need any more material.) It was Ford's quickened pace that gave Sara Jane Moore a faster-moving target and resulted in her bullet whizzing between the President's and Rumsfeld's heads. What else? Yes, of course: On the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, he was at his desk at the Pentagon when the whole building suddenly shook.
While it isn't always thrilling—meditations on interoffice memoranda don't often make for Tom Clancy-quality suspense—Known and Unknown is a meaty, well-written book that will be a primary source for historians. For the truly insatiable, and perhaps the socially challenged, he's putting a zillion supporting documents online. Please, be my guest. Yet this power memoir deserves to be read with the care that went into writing it. Too many Washington tell-alls are dashed off or left to hapless ghostwriters because the—ahem—"author" was racing off to another $100,000 speaking gig in Orlando.
Known and Unknown is also assiduously, almost mind-numbingly footnoted and sourced. Perhaps it's a sign that Rumsfeld has spent enough time in Washington to know most readers start at the index. Here's a short tipsheet of who comes out well, and who doesn't.
At the top of the latter list: Condoleezza Rice. Rumsfeld writes without any flavor of score-settling, but it's pellucidly clear he views her as a disaster from start to finish, both at the National Security Council and the State Dept. Others who may want to chew a Pepto-Bismol tablet or two before looking themselves up: Colin Powell, George Tenet, Jacques Chirac, Richard Armitage, Paul Bremer, formerNewsweek editor Mark Whitaker, Dick Durbin, and more or less the entire U.S. State Dept. The praised include George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, Paul Wolfowitz, George Shultz, and the U.S. military (with a few high-level exceptions).
Rumsfeld's essential theme is that Americans don't tolerate long engagements. (Though the country managed a long one, albeit of a different kind, between 1949 and 1989.) He cites, and dwells on repeatedly, America's rapid pull-outs from Beirut after the Marine barracks bombing in 1983, and from Somalia following the "Black Hawk Down" episode a decade later. These departures give assurance to our enemies, he writes. Rumsfeld explains that Saddam told his interrogators he viewed America as a "paper tiger," though the Lion of Iraq may have entertained a different view once the noose was put around his neck. The Rumsfeld Doctrine is, of course, contestable—what were we doing there in the first place, anyway?—but he defends it nevertheless with muscle and vigor.
A thoughtful man and an avid reader of history, Rummy delights in collecting maxims, which he publishes privately as Rumsfeld's Rules. Many of those nuggets are sprinkled throughoutKnown and Unknown, and provide a glimpse into the inner workings of the man. Some of the most telling include: "Plans are worthless, but planning is everything" (Dwight Eisenhower); "If you get the objectives right, a lieutenant can write the strategy" (George Marshall). The next few hail from his seven years running G.D. Searle, during which profits rose from $35 million to $162 million: "What you measure improves"; "You get what you inspect, not what you expect"; "A's hire A's; B's hire C's." It has been a pleasure to know Donald Rumsfeld. Thank God I never worked for him.
During the worst moments of the Iraq War, though, I came across another one of Rumsfeld's bits of Zen: "If you can't solve a problem, make it bigger." I loved that line, and quoted it often, adding with a laugh, "Well, I guess that worked." I still like the line, but I'm no longer laughing quite so hard.

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