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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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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.

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