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.
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.