This article appears in the new September 2008 issue of The American Spectator. To subscribe to our monthly print edition, click here.
These days, political memoirs come in three genres.
First, the “everyone around me was an idiot or a crook, but I was a really smart good guy.” Former White House press secretary Scott McClellan’s What Happened perfected the genre, assuring him the place in history previously occupied by Baron Munchausen.
The second borrows a line from the great Toby Keith, converting “I wish I didn’t know now what I didn’t know then” from lyric to prose. Former CIA director George Tenet’s At the Center of the Storm will, for many a year, be foremost in that category.
The last is one that can recount history over decades of public service. It tells the story of important events from the viewpoint of a key participant in well-documented terms, like Churchill’s six-volume history of World War II.
In a small but elegant suite of offices near Farragut Square in downtown Washington, D.C., former secretary of defense Donald Rumsfeld is writing his entry in the third genre. Churchill once said, “History will be kind to me, for I intend to write it.” Rumsfeld knows history will be more kind to him than the daily press was, and not only because he will write it.
History — benefiting from the passage of time — is not the stuff of daily news reporting, which is tinged with the emotions of the day and the biases of the reporters. Donald Rumsfeld — once “Rumstud” to the adoring pressies — fell into disfavor over the Iraq war. In his retirement, he must take comfort from his record of achievement, a record that guarantees history’s verdict on him will be much kinder than the editorial page of the New York Times.
Rumsfeld resigned from his post after the 2006 election, presumably rather than face an inability to get anything done, wasting his time answering inanities in televised congressional hearings.
His offices are adorned with many memorabilia of four decades of public service. Five cabinet chairs — on which he sat as a five-time member of presidential cabinets — are scattered around. His favorite picture — an almost totally black satellite photo of North Korea at night, proving that nation’s near-Stone Age lack of development — hangs on a wall. Rumsfeld has a lot to write about.
Rumsfeld served in Congress and was both the youngest and oldest man to serve as Secretary of Defense, first for Gerald Ford (1975-1977) and then for George W. Bush (2001-2006). He was White House chief of staff for Ford, chaired the bipartisan U.S. Ballistic Missile Threat Commission in 1998, and the U.S. Commission to Assess National Security Space Management and Organization in 2000. He’s been a special envoy to the Middle East (1983-1984), served on two presidential commissions on U.S.-Japan relations, and — among other things — has been one of the most successful chief executives in American industry, turning the pharmaceutical company G.D. Searle from an endangered failing business into a sustained success.
Unlike Tenet, Rumsfeld wasn’t just “at the center of the storm.” Rumsfeld was in the center of the storm.
THERE IS NO SHORTAGE of things for Rumsfeld to write about. But what should he write? He could write about the financial engines that drive America, how they relate to the world and how they can thrive in the future. He could write a textbook on how the media, not the Democrats, are the Republicans’ opposition party. And he could write about the devolution of the Democratic Party, from the days of Henry “Scoop” Jackson and Sam Nunn to the present day of Harry “the war is lost” Reid and Dick “Gitmo is like a Nazi prison camp” Durbin. But he shouldn’t, and he likely won’t.
I don’t know what Rumsfeld will share with us, but I have a few hopes. Topics that are near and dear to his heart, that could add greatly to our understanding of the history of the past half-century. Things that will shape our world for decades to come.
First, Rumsfeld should write about how he has brought Ronald Reagan’s vision of an America defended against ballistic missile attack off the drawing boards and into reality.
In a September 2006 interview, Rumsfeld told me, “I was there in the White House when President Reagan made his announcement that evening about missile defense, and the wisdom of it is clearer every year, that weapons are increasingly more powerful and increasingly available. We owe it to our people to provide for their protection and their safety. To be willing to engage in a serious effort over a sustained period of time to develop the capabilities to deter and defend against a range of threats.”
He could — and should — write about his own role in making it possible for President Bush to pull America out of the so-called ABM treaty that blocked development and deployment of a ballistic missile defense. Few know that it was Rumsfeld himself, negotiating with his Russian counterparts, who paved the way for Bush’s action.
Those are the facts, and no one knows them better. Rumsfeld’s negotiations with the Russians should be detailed, because they will provide a template for the future. American diplomacy is usually endless, often pointless. Rumsfeld knows how to negotiate and get results. The man who is most often derided as a perfect antidote to diplomacy can write — in the facts of these and other negotiations he led with tough adversaries — how American diplomats can succeed.
Closing that chapter, Rumsfeld could reflect on the meaning of the ballistic missile defenses we already have in place, and those soon to come on line (if the next administration doesn’t stop them). Right now, there’s enough in place to defend against anything North Korea might do. Soon, too, the Chinese threat can be defanged.
George W. Bush brought Donald Rumsfeld back to the Pentagon to transform it from its Cold War mentality to face the future. He succeeded, despite the entrenched bureaucracy both in and out of uniform.
He could write about how, in the first days of his second tenure as defense secretary, he called the Joint Chiefs of Staff together in the “tank” — the secure conference room near the secretary’s office — to talk about how he needed their help and support to achieve the president’s goal. Their resistance was predictable, but — with one exception — reasonable. Rumsfeld owes us some of the details of that meeting, especially the reaction of then Army chief of staff Gen. Eric Shinseki.
As one source told me soon after that meeting, Shinseki pulled a “Corleone” on the surprised Rumsfeld. He promised to use his influence on Capitol Hill (presumably with his lifelong “godfather,” Hawaii Democrat Sen. Daniel Inouye) to make Rumsfeld popular if only he’d leave the Army alone. Taken aback, Rumsfeld rejected Shinseki’s contumacious offer and implied threat and thus entered into a prolonged struggle with the Army.
Transforming the Army became a daily struggle. When Rumsfeld wanted to cancel the Army’s “Crusader” siege cannon program (the weapon was so big and so heavy as to defy deployment and battlefield use), Shinseki went behind his back and turned what should have been an easy conversion of the Army from a garrison force into a heated political battle.
It was only after Shinseki retired that the Army began to transform.
RUMSFELD WILL HAVE TO WRITE the history of the Iraq war. In this part, he can be kind or cruel to his detractors. No, not the ones in the press. Instead, those in the White House, including the president, who could have made better decisions and those in the State Department and even in the Pentagon, who fought him.
The conventional wisdom among the denizens of Capitol Hill and the media is that Rumsfeld insisted on sending too few troops into Iraq and botched the postwar planning. I know different, and Rumsfeld will have his own view.
As a sainted law partner of mine often says, the facts are what they are, and we’re all stuck with them. Rumsfeld should not be troubled by them. In Afghanistan and Iraq, his ideas worked when they were implemented, and his adversaries’ didn’t.
On 9/11, when the Pentagon was struck, Don Rumsfeld — at the age of 69 — ran to the site of the attack to help the injured and had to be pulled out of action by his security detail to answer the president’s call to war.
Bush wanted to attack Afghanistan in weeks, not months, but Rumsfeld faced — again — the opposition of Gen. Shinseki. Shinseki demanded a deployment of essentially the entire Army, requiring six months or more of preparation. So Rumsfeld did what the president asked, organizing and mounting a special operations forces-dominated campaign that threw the Taliban out of the Afghan capital of Kabul in a matter of weeks. The Army — except for its highly capable special operations forces — stayed home.
In early 2003 — months before the Iraq invasion — President Bush was presented with two plans for post-war Iraq. The first, written by CIA Director George Tenet and Secretary of State Colin Powell, provided for a long occupation of Iraq and the nation-building that the president had campaigned against in his 2000 campaign against Al Gore. The second, a Pentagon plan authored by Rumsfeld’s team — including then Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Air Force Gen. Richard Myers — provided for the establishment of a provisional government before the invasion and American withdrawal within months of Saddam’s overthrow. The president chose the Powell-Tenet plan and ordered Rumsfeld to carry it out.
Rumsfeld can, and must, illuminate the role of L. Paul Bremer, the consul of Iraq who was supposed to be Rumsfeld’s subordinate but who — instead listened only to the State Department. Bremer proved a loose cannon whose decisions made the State Department’s plan for nation-building an impossibility.
Also, Rumsfeld can — and must — clarify how the post-invasion insurgency was organized, run, and manned not only by al-Qaeda, but also by Iran, Syria, and Saudi Arabia. He knows, as well as anyone, how those nations directly interfered in Iraq, at the cost of American lives. Perhaps he might be willing to explain why the president — presented not later than December 2005 with conclusive evidence of Iranian arms and forces taking American lives — chose not to take the actions necessary to save American lives being spent in the self-imposed quagmire of nation-building.
But Rumsfeld must also explain how he made the error of allowing the U.S. generals to make their headquarters in Saddam’s old palaces, taking up residence in his lavishly-decorated mansions. By doing so, they gave the appearance that Iraq had traded a home-grown dictator for a foreign one. Was that Rumsfeld’s decision or the president’s? We hope to know.
ANY HISTORY OF THE IRAQ WAR will have to address the failures of the intelligence community. The CIA, as I’ve written so many times, was just as surprised when the Berlin Wall fell in 1989 as it had been when it was built in 1961. Its long record of ineffectiveness was obvious to Rumsfeld long before 2003.
In 1997, Congress appointed Rumsfeld to chair the Commission to Assess the Ballistic Missile Threat to the United States, which reported in July 1998. In a little-known “Intelligence Side Letter” to the report, dated March 18, 1999, the commission reported shortcomings in the intelligence community that foreshadowed its failures to give warning of the 9/11 attacks and the mistakes in assessing Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction.
The letter began with three findings from the main report, one of which was that the intelligence community’s capability to monitor, assess, and warn of the ballistic missile threat was eroding. Remember that the commission’s charter was limited to ballistic missile threats, but what it said about the intelligence agencies’ activities was equally applicable to terrorism.
The letter warned of the dangers posed by the “highly charged political atmosphere, foreign penetration of the intelligence community and stovepiping of functions and information within the IC.” Stovepiping — the separation of access among intelligence functions — was one of the biggest failures of intelligence cited by the 9/11 Commission: the failure to “connect the dots.”
Rumsfeld’s side letter also criticized the ad hoc nature of intelligence tasking, blaming Congress and the White House for confusing priorities and imposing short-term tasks on the intelligence agencies that deprived them of the assets to look at longer-term threats. It also criticized the intelligence community for not being positioned to address the missile threat — and the threat of weapons of mass destruction. It said:
The underlying fact is that the IC is not yet well positioned to address the ballistic missile threat today. Its analysts are relatively inexperienced, lacking technical in-country and language skills and, if our experience is indicative, trained for the most part in non-scientific and non-technical disciplines.
Those same disciplines are essential to dealing with WMD and terrorist threats.
And then there was the issue of “fudging.” That is, Clintonian “fudging”:
The President’s recent discussion of “fudging” occurred in the context of a discussion of the effects of sanction laws on his flexibility to conduct diplomacy. Faced with the prospect that sanctions might automatically be imposed on a nation should certain information about its activities become known, and believing the sanctions would not advance US interests, the President allowed as how he and other senior policy makers were likely to “fudge” the issue.
Clinton “fudged” up a lot of decisions based on “fudged” statements on intelligence, no matter what the law was. Rumsfeld’s letter, the commission stated, “However its effects are manifested, ‘fudging’ has a corrupting influence on both the policy making and the intelligence communities.”
Much was promised — by CIA Director Tenet — in response to the Intelligence Side Letter but little, as we have seen, was done to improve how intelligence was gathered, analyzed, or presented to policymakers between 1999 and 2003. The intelligence community Bush and Rumsfeld inherited in 2001 was still thoroughly “fudged” up.
One thing Rumsfeld learned in the commission’s days he tried to fix himself. Actually, both he and Vice President Cheney tried.
The side letter criticized severely the failure of senior policymakers to challenge the products of the intelligence community:
Unless and until senior users [of intelligence] take time to engage analysts, question their assumptions and methods, seek from them what they know, what they don’t know and ask them their opinions — and do so without penalizing the analysts when their opinions differ from those of the user — senior users cannot have substantial impact in improving the intelligence product they receive.
Rumsfeld and Cheney tried to do just that in the months before the Iraq invasion. And they’ve been vilified for trying to skew the intelligence for their troubles. What they didn’t foresee was the political activism of the intelligence community when it became desperate to find a fall guy after the pre-war intelligence proved wrong.
IN MANY PAST articles I’ve labeled Rumsfeld the Big Dog in the context of a favorite saying of an Alabama gent I once knew: “If you can’t run with the Big Dog, you’d better go sit on the porch.” Rumsfeld is no longer running that path, just mapping it for those who may follow and are willing to learn.
Those of us who admire Rumsfeld for who he is and what he has done are eager to read and study the Big Dog’s map of our nation and our world.