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Donald Rumsfeld on Obama: ‘I Begin with Incompetence as a Problem’

Talking to journalist David Samuels about his Kindle Singles interview with the former secretary of defense.

7:31 AM, Oct 4, 2013 • By LEE SMITH
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David Samuels’ deeply reported oddball narratives and profiles have appeared on the covers of Harper’s, the Atlantic, the New Yorker, and other magazines. Samuels has also contributed two long interviews for Amazon’s new Kindle Singles series: The first with Israeli President Simon Peres, and his most recent with former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld (available here, and Rumsfeld has also just published a new book, Rumsfeld's Rules: Leadership Lessons in Business, Politics, War, and Life). Recently, I spoke with Samuels to find out what sort of insights this longtime American policymaker had into U.S. foreign policy, past and present. 

Rumsfeld Donald

Why did you want to speak to Donald Rumsfeld, or more specifically, why now and about what?

One reason is that I wanted to do a sort of autopsy on the Bush administration’s war on terror, I wanted to see how those decisions made more than a decade ago have continued to shape American domestic politics and foreign policy even under Obama. My sense is that Bush pursued the Harvard business school model as an executive, insofar as the classic move any CEO would make taking on a bigger job would be to find the most experienced people he could and give them vertical areas of responsibility. 

The problem was that each of the principals – Cheney, Rumsfeld, Powell, and the Bush-Rice tandem -- all wound up pulling in different directions. As Rumsfeld put it in our interview, “Sometime choosing A over B is preferable when A+B doesn’t make sense.”

When I asked him how disputes between policymakers were resolved, he shrugged and said he really had no idea. He said there were actually very few meetings in which policy was openly debated between the principals. Instead, everyone’s opinions went into what he described as a “a black box” – namely, the White House, where decisions were made by some unseen combination of Bush and Rice, and were often relayed by Rice, who clearly spoke for the President.

Rumsfeld struck me as the most interesting of those people to talk to right now because he is not speaking for a large section of the Republican party, as Cheney is, nor at the age of 81 does he imagine he has a political future. He’s got a well-earned reputation for blunt talk, and he has been held accountable for some very major failures, like force levels in Iraq and of course Abu Ghraib – not all of which were his fault. And he is also obviously very smart. So I thought he would make for an interesting interview about whether the war on terror has been a success, where it is going and how he himself experienced the decision-making process in the Bush White House.

Now, I profiled Condoleezza Rice for the Atlantic when she was secretary of state, and I think you could make a fascinating movie or stage play about the relationship between Rice and Bush. I’m hardly suggesting anything untoward -- just pointing out that two people of the same age and experience both felt themselves to a similar degree to be outsiders and found each other’s company useful and formed a very strong bond. No one besides the two of them knows how that happened, and what the content of that emotional relationship was, or what they talked about, and how it shaped policy. And neither one of them is talking about anything besides football.

By contrast, you can certainly see Dick Cheney on Fox opining about current events. But as a former vice president, he seems to feel that he has a responsibility to keep the confidences of the president largely to himself. Colin Powell seems not to feel the same sense of obligation. For the Rice profile, I also got to spend a little time with Powell and while I’m not saying he polishes a shiny statue of Colin Powell that he keeps by his bedside every morning, he has jealously guarded his good name, sometimes at the expense of the men he served with – an experience that he seems to feel besmirched by. So he is not necessarily the most interesting or reliable source about what actually happened, either.

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