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The Interrogation of Rumsfeld

The former defense secretary pens an ­absorbing memoir—not that you’d know it from the ­mainstream media interviews.

Feb 21, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 22 • By FRED BARNES
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The Bush administration trilogy was supposed to arrive in this order: President Bush’s book first, then Vice President Cheney’s, and finally Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s. But Cheney, because of heart trouble, couldn’t finish on time. So Rumsfeld stepped forward last week with Known and Unknown, his absorbing and vigorously argued memoir, accompanied by hundreds of recently declassified or previously unreleased documents available online at www.rumsfeld.com.

The Interrogation of Rumsfeld

Gary Locke

Bush got off relatively easy with the press when Decision Points came out last year, and the book has sold an extraordinary two million copies. Rumsfeld hasn’t been so lucky, though his book, with a first printing of 290,000 copies, was an immediate bestseller.

Rumsfeld is “controversial” and “polarizing” and “defiant,” as ABC News described him. These are media jargon for “we don’t like the guy.” But since ABC offered a good deal for publicizing his book and gained exclusive interview rights on broadcast TV, Rumsfeld had to run the gauntlet there: ABC World News in the evening, Nightline later that night, and Good Morning America the next morning. It wasn’t pretty. 

After a few obligatory questions about Egypt, GMA host George Stephanopoulos got to the point. “You concede in the book that the Iraq war came at a very high price. I want to show for our viewers some of that price,” he said. A graphic popped on the screen: “4,408 U.S. military deaths, 32,000 wounded, 115,000 Iraqi civilians killed, $700 billion (CBO estimate).”

“I’ve read the book. I’ve read the reviews. I watched your interview with Diane [Sawyer],” Stephanopoulos said, “and it seems like the one question that most people want answered is the one you most don’t want to address. What responsibility do you bear for those costs?” Most people? Please. In any case, Stephanopoulos didn’t mention the war in Iraq had been won.

The interview quickly became an argument. Stephanopoulos said Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein had been “contained” prior to the American invasion. He said there had been “many warnings [that] more troops could have helped, by advisers on the ground.” Rumsfeld: “No, that’s not correct.” Stephanopoulos: American envoy Paul Bremer “said that​—​it is correct.” Rumsfeld: “It is not correct.”

And so it went. Stephanopoulos asked Rumsfeld to concede that if he’d stayed in office after 2006, “there would have been defeat in Iraq and the surge would not have taken place.” Rumsfeld: “Oh, no, absolutely not.” Stephanopoulos: “Why is it so difficult, sir, for you to say, ‘This is the mistake I made. This is what we should have done different. This is what I’m sorry for’?” Rumsfeld didn’t take the bait.

At the end, Stephanopoulos said he wished they “had a lot more time to talk.” I suspect Rumsfeld felt otherwise. 

Diane Sawyer, the top ABC anchor, was also eager for Rumsfeld to admit mistakes. Here’s how her Nightline interview was introduced: “Diane Sawyer goes head to head with Donald Rumsfeld as never before. .  .  . The big question: What did he get wrong?”

Rumsfeld said he got some things wrong, as he does in his book. He said “it’s possible” he was slow to react to deterioration of the military situation in Iraq. He regretted saying “stuff happens” to explain the looting after American troops captured Baghdad. He said Bush should have accepted his resignation after the Abu Ghraib prison scandal was revealed in 2004.

But a full-throated apology from Rumsfeld​—​for the war, its cost, bad intelligence on WMD in Iraq, his tardiness in supporting the troop surge in 2007, and more​—​is what his critics in the mainstream media crave. A review in the Washington Post was headlined: “Rumsfeld remains largely unapologetic in memoir.” Indeed he does.

The Post was one of a handful of publications given early copies of Known and Unknown by a New York bookstore. The New York Times was another. Its reviewer, Michiko Kakutani, called the book a “tedious, self-serving volume .  .  . filled with efforts to blame others.” Tedious, it isn’t. Rumsfeld tells his side of the story in policy struggles and internal conflicts in the Nixon, Ford, and Bush 43 administrations. And he is comfortable in naming those with whom he found fault and why he did.

This is why his memoir is such an enthralling read, even if your knowledge of those administrations is sketchy. It’s not solely an account of how policies developed. We can be thankful for that. Nor is it simply a narrative of hopping from one administration post to the next, all the while neglecting the historically important clashes among officials at the top levels in Washington. Memoirs of Washington titans often gloss over personal battles and feuds, and their books, unlike Rumsfeld’s, are laborious and sometimes unreadable.

Rumsfeld insists his book isn’t “score-settling” with old foes. “It isn’t at all,” he told me. “It’s descriptive. I think it’s honest.” He says Henry Kissinger, the former secretary of state, urged him “to tell it like it was,” as Kissinger himself has in his memoirs. “And I did,” Rumsfeld says.

He alerted many of those whose names pop up in the book or in the documents posted on his website to what was coming. He called 7 of them, including former Secretary of State Colin Powell, and sent notes to 20 more.

Powell, Rumsfeld writes, “was valuable as an adviser and respected as a man of considerable accomplishments, but his department seemed to remain skeptical about President Bush and less than eager to implement his policies.” The State Department under Powell was also the source of constant leaks damaging to the Defense Department and the White House, he says.

Condoleezza Rice’s deficiency as national security adviser in Bush’s first term was her insistence on bridging differences between advisers. “Rice seemed to believe that it was a personal shortcoming on her part if she had to ask the president to resolve an interagency difference,” Rumsfeld writes.

He’s no fan of John McCain, calling him “a man with a hair-trigger temper and a propensity to fashion and shift his positions to appeal to the media.” And going back to his time as Ford’s chief of staff in 1974 and 1975, he writes that Vice President Nelson Rockefeller was a bully who “would badger and pester subordinates until they said what he wanted to hear.” Kissinger, he says, was chronically late to meetings.

Washington memoirs are often short on anecdotes. Rumsfeld has sprinkled his book with them. When he was a congressman from Illinois, he was reading a bill when Republican John Byrnes of Wisconsin approached him. “Don’t start reading that stuff, Don,” Byrnes said, “or you’ll never make it around here.” Byrnes was joking, Rumsfeld insists.

One episode in Known and Unknown is troubling. Rumsfeld is sharply critical of Paul Bremer, who headed the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) that governed Iraq after the invasion in 2003. Rumsfeld says he gave Bremer “considerable latitude for decision making,” but Bremer exceeded his instructions and, in particular, was unwilling to give Iraqis any real say.

Bremer was also Bush’s man in Iraq, a fact that Rumsfeld laments. Bremer had a one-on-one lunch with the president before he left for Baghdad. “The president could of course have lunch with whomever he wanted,” Rumsfeld writes. “But in Bremer’s case, such actions contributed to a confused chain of command.” Bremer, however, didn’t appear to be confused. Though he reported to Rumsfeld, his ultimate boss was the president.

“Most troubling,” according to Rumsfeld, “was that Bremer proved reluctant to cede any significant authority to the Iraqis.” Not for long. He created an Iraqi Governing Council (IGC) to advise him and handle some administrative duties. In May 2004, a year after Bremer arrived, the IGC named Ayad Allawi prime minister of an interim government. In 2005, a full-fledged Iraqi parliament was elected. That strikes me as a reasonably fast transition.

And as two 2003 documents posted on Rumsfeld’s website suggest, Bremer followed the administration’s guidelines. Its “principles for Iraq” included the requirement that the CPA “assert authority” and “impose order.” It also was to provide “hands-on political reconstruction.” Bremer complied. He basically adhered to the “Iraqi Interim Authority Action Plan,” which outlined the path to an Iraqi government.

When I talked to Rumsfeld last week, he appeared to soften his criticism of Bremer. There were “a lot of good things accomplished” under Bremer, he said. The Pentagon and State Department simply disagreed on the “pace” of transition to Iraqi self-rule. Rumsfeld wanted to “do it fast,” as had been done in Afghanistan. “The State Department did not agree,” he said. Nor did Bremer.

In Known and Unknown, Rumsfeld acknowledges he was a “latecomer” to supporting the surge of troops in Iraq. He emphasizes its psychological effect as much as its military impact, annoying some surge backers. Still, he promoted the surge​—​after his departure had been announced​—​when “there was not a lot of support in the Pentagon,” Rumsfeld told me. “I made it my job to work with the military so that when the decision was made the department would be supportive of the president and .  .  . supportive of the [surge] concept.”

To flack his book, Rumsfeld has relied heavily on Fox News, especially Sean Hannity, and conservative talk radio. He was treated the roughest by ABC News, his first foray into the mainstream media. “Everybody is so eager to know what is the lesson you learned, .  .  . ” Sawyer asked, “about you.” Rumsfeld looked exasperated. “Oh, my goodness,” he replied. Later, I asked if he had any complaints about ABC’s questions. He shrugged but didn’t complain.

Fred Barnes is executive editor of The Weekly Standard.

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