The Magazine

The Case for the Defense

Midge Decter sketches the life and achievements of Donald Rumsfeld.

Nov 3, 2003, Vol. 9, No. 08 • By PETER D. FEAVER
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A Personal Portrait

by Midge Decter

Regan, 220 pp., $24.95

FEW PUBLIC SERVANTS have had as wild a ride as Donald Rumsfeld. His inauguration as secretary of defense in 2001 was greeted with remarkably favorable press attention. He was called the best prepared defense secretary ever, having already done the job once--not to mention having served in elected office and in a host of other political appointments, even as a presidential candidate, as well as having been a successful corporate executive. He was the man who went toe-to-toe in bureaucratic fights with Henry Kissinger and lived to tell about it.

By August 2001 Rumsfeld had morphed into a "failed cabinet member." He was considered rude and accused of alienating much of the top brass in the Pentagon and apparently most members of Congress. The betting money was that Rumsfeld would be the first Cabinet official to be thrown off the sled to the wolves.

Then, on September 12, 2001, Rumsfeld morphed again, into the fearless leader who rushed towards the impact zone of the Pentagon attack and threw himself into the breach helping care for the wounded. Over the course of the ensuing war in Afghanistan, Rumsfeld climbed to the dizziest heights of popularity, earning the coveted moniker of "sex symbol," and the highest badge popular culture can offer: favorable treatment in "Saturday Night Live" skits.

But the worm turned for Rumsfeld once again in the run-up to the Iraq war and the early days of that conflict. He was no longer sexy but boorish, a war-monger who needlessly alienated our allies. He was the micro-manager who committed the sins of Robert McNamara, tinkering with war plans and jeopardizing the mission by imposing an ideology of transformation onto force-sizing and deployment decisions.

Of course, then Baghdad fell, and he was again a media darling who showed those retired generals embedded in television studios that they were hopelessly out of touch with modern combat.

And now, having won the war, Rumsfeld is accused of losing the peace. While work proceeds on rebuilding Iraq, Rumsfeld is re-vilified--it's simply a matter of cutting and pasting trenchant paragraphs from earlier attacks--by an even larger coalition of critics. Just this week, Rumsfeld authored an "off-message" memo about the war on terrorism that was leaked to the press, presumably by an internal enemy determined to see his wings clipped even further.

Enter Midge Decter's new biography, "Rumsfeld." It is surely fitting that Rumsfeld is the first figure in the Bush administration besides the president to get his own full biography. It is a certainty that this won't be the last. But it is a good bet that this will be the most favorable.

Midge Decter is a big fan of Donald Rumsfeld. The biography opens with Decter recounting an anecdote about a Manhattan doyenne gushing over Rumsfeld in 2001 and closes with a peroration on Rumsfeld's "manliness." In between are passages exploring Rumsfeld's popularity and the manifold faults of his many critics. This is as much hagiography as biography. Rumsfeld an objet désiré. Rumsfeld as Hemingway--he even impulsively ran with the bulls at Pamplona!

Which is not to say that ordinary folks, even Rumsfeld's critics, should give the book a miss. On the contrary, there is much to recommend. The book is elegantly written, and clearly Decter had access to people who are not talking to reporters on a day-to-day basis and is able to offer up many nuggets of insight and perspective. For instance, according to Decter, Rumsfeld got the nod to be secretary of defense when Senator Dan Coats blew his interview with President Bush by asking for assurances that he would not be subordinate to Secretary of State Colin Powell; Bush evidently took this as a sign of weakness and looked for someone who would not need reassuring from the president. The first President Bush did not like Rumsfeld because he thought that Rumsfeld had maneuvered to get him appointed director of the CIA to sabotage Bush's future electoral prospects.

Likewise, details from Rumsfeld's early years are remarkably prophetic. As a junior congressman, he picked fights with the Republican leadership in the House. He was doggedly reform-minded in every post--whether it was at the Office of Economic Opportunity under Nixon or at Searle, the troubled pharmaceutical company he turned around. He was a risk-taker and did not budge under fire, even when a multi-billion-dollar business deal with Monsanto looked in trouble. Perhaps most significantly, at least since détente, Rumsfeld has understood that weakness can be just as provocative as belligerency. The same logic that led him to be skeptical about arms control led him to interpret the attacks of September 11 as symptomatic of enemies' viewing America as a paper tiger.

Decter leaves relatively unexplored the questions that are dogging Secretary Rumsfeld now. Did he underestimate the challenges of rebuilding Iraq? Did he get out of his lane to challenge Powell, or has Powell been pulling strings behind Rumsfeld's back? Has Rumsfeld over-corrected for weak civilian control during the 1990s by imposing overweening civilian control now? To what extent does Rumsfeld's badgering style of management--Decter has him claiming proudly that he sends back papers for corrections as many as seven times--create more problems than it solves?

A fair exploration of these sorts of questions might put a bit of tarnish on the halo Decter has given Rumsfeld. Yet here is where one appreciates Decter's contribution.

The vilification of Rumsfeld, especially abroad but even in the mainstream American press, is absurdly excessive, and Decter is absolutely right to provide a favorable counter-context. The over-reaction to an offhand remark contrasting Old and New Europe tells us far more about the pathologies of Rumsfeld's enemies than it does about Rumsfeld's own diplomatic prowess. Decter shows that many of the critical portrayals of Rumsfeld in the press are as much a caricature as is the famous "Saturday Night Live" skits.

You know a man by his enemies and by his friends. In Rumsfeld's case, both his friends and enemies agree on one thing: He is larger than life. Such a remarkable man deserves several biographies, and if one of them venerates a bit, we need not worry; the next is bound to denigrate a bit too much.

Peter D. Feaver is professor of political science at Duke University and author of "Armed Servants: Agency, Oversight, and Civil-Military Relations."