The Blog

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
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

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.

Besides which, who doesn’t want to hear Donald Rumsfeld trying to restrain himself as he talks about what it is was like to travel with Henry Kissinger to China, or what Richard Nixon was like as a boss?

This wasn’t the first time you’ve taken Rumsfeld as your subject.

No, as with many people, my sense of Rumsfeld is largely tied to 9/11. I grew up in New York, I live here now, and I had spent a bunch of time in the Middle East, so with 9/11, I felt these two realities come crashing together. I wanted to understand how the U.S. government was going to respond, and the only real notes of clarity I could hear were in Donald Rumsfeld’s press briefings at the Pentagon. His manner was commanding and clear and had a slightly obnoxious Rat Pack-type edge. I think it was the last time that Americans saw a public official acting as an adult dealing on a regular basis with an experienced and well-informed press corps. This was sparring between intelligent people, which showed in the sharpness of the questions and in the sharpness of Rumsfeld’s retorts.

I had to see this for myself, partly as a reporter and partly for my psychological well-being, so I went down to Washington, for maybe 3 weeks, and attended maybe 5 or 6 of his briefings at the Pentagon. I then wrote a piece for Harpers that focused on one particular briefing, in which Rumsfeld explained to the press corps the nature of conflict, which he said in its scope, intensity and duration would be analogous to the Cold War. As someone who was secretary of defense during the heart of the Cold War, this was obviously something he had thought through. This statement led the nightly news in Germany, but no American news outlet picked it up. This struck me as dangerous—we were warned that this is what policymakers had in mind. If the popular meme became that the president lied us into war, like with the Gulf of Tonkin resolution that led us into Vietnam, the reality is that I saw an outspoken cabinet official who was quite specific and blunt in his description of what was coming.

And yet Rumsfeld says in your interview that unlike the Cold War, the administration didn’t have a very clear idea of the intellectual underpinnings of the war. “The White House,” he says, “was very nervous about even talking about religion, for fear of being seen as being against a particular religion. And yet if you don’t pin the tail on the donkey and say that the enemy is radical Islam and Islamism and people who go out and kill innocent men, women and children to try to impose their views on others, and who are fundamentally opposed to the nation-state—we weren’t willing to say that. I was. But as an administration we weren’t.” So why didn’t the administration’s strategy match Rumsfeld’s clarity?

I think the process that Rumsfeld described – of decision-making by a camarilla, meaning by the President and a tight inner circle of trusted aides, while the heads of major departments like State and Defense are largely kept in the dark – has clearly persisted through the Obama administration. The policy results in both cases seem to be only half-baked.

What I think America wound up with policy-wise in Iraq was something like the Doctor Dolittle animal, the Pushmi-pullyu. There was Rumsfeld’s slimmed down, modernized strike force, which would sweep into Baghdad and decapitate Saddam’s regime, which fit with Cheney’s inclination to replace Saddam with someone ostensibly friendly to the US and then get out. But the post-invasion policy was actually the opposite of that – namely, the Bush-Rice construct that became known as the “Freedom Agenda,” and which foresaw a longer-term military occupation that would provide the stability necessary to turn Iraq into a model democracy that the rest of the Arab Middle East would want to emulate. Powell’s emphasis was on putting more troops on the ground, and having more cooks in the mix in the form of regional governments. So you had something with the head of a lion, the wings of an eagle, and the body of a cow that didn’t give any milk. 

If you look at Iraq today, the result is a mess of a country that cost America at least $2 trillion, and is currently governed by a pro-Iranian leader who has granted himself nearly dictatorial powers. Meanwhile, the Kurds have established what amounts to an independent country of their own in the north, massive car bombs go off in Baghdad every week, and no one in the Middle East looks at Iraq as a model of anything except of how American good intentions can lead to ruin.

You have a very nice story from Rumsfeld about Clinton coming up to him at the World War II Memorial after Abu Ghraib when he says “Don, there's no way in God's green earth that anyone with an ounce of sense could think you could know anything that was going on in Abu Ghraib halfway around the world on the midnight shift. You'll get through this, don't worry about it.” Rumsfeld is really impressed by Clinton—“True, gracious, political, and brilliant,” he says—but much less so by Obama. 

I think Rumsfeld was personally and publicly shamed by Abu Ghraib in a way that still haunts him, which is why he says such nice things about Bill Clinton.

On the other hand, I think he honestly believes that Obama is incompetent, when it comes to geopolitics and also to making decisions that affect the American economy. “I begin with incompetence as a problem,” he told me in the interview. “I think his behavior reflects a lack of experience and a lack of a strategic concept, or some principles or values that he tests things against.” Accordingly, says Rumsfeld, “We are contributing to a vacuum in the world that’s going to be filled by people who don’t have our values and don’t have our interests and our beliefs, and that means it’s going to be a more dangerous world for us and for others.”

What seems to bother Rumsfeld most is his sense that America is a country in steep decline – which is a word that he used more than once. While he thinks that Obama’s Syria policy is a fig leaf for a disaster, he actually seemed less focused on specific policy choices than on his sense that the socio-economic foundation of American power is disintegrating. Without sustained American economic strength, neither American threats nor American offers of friendship are likely to carry much weight with the rest of the world.

How much Rumsfeld’s own policy choices, and the wars he helped to oversee, have contributed to that decline, is hard to quantify right now – but it’s also hard to argue that they helped. On the other hand, I think the country is definitely ripe for an argument about whether America wants to sustain its role as the world’s pre-eminent military and economic power, and what the alternatives will actually look like. 

Recent Blog Posts

The Weekly Standard Archives

Browse 15 Years of the Weekly Standard

Old covers