Rumsfeld's memoir: Was he the most destructive secretary of defense in U.S. history?

Military analysis.
Feb. 8 2011 4:30 PM

Know-It-All

Donald Rumsfeld may be even worse at writing a memoir than he was at being secretary of defense.

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It is true, as Rumsfeld claims, that the generals voiced no dissent over the question of troop levels at various meetings, inside the Pentagon and at the White House, where they could have spoken up. As many others have noted, the generals copped out; they abrogated their own constitutional duty. (One who didn't was Lieut. Gen. Greg Newbold, the Joint Staff's operations director and, at the time, a likely pick to be the next commandant of the Marine Corps. Newbold resigned from the Marines, then spoke out in an op-ed piece published in Time magazine, criticizing the war, the war plan, and Rumsfeld's callous treatment of military advice. Newbold is not mentioned in this memoir.)

Rumsfeld strikes a pose of puzzlement over what he calls the "myth" that he held officers in contempt and brooked no dissent. He writes: "I welcomed and made a point of encouraging different views, dissent and challenges" (p. 456). "I wanted candor" (p. 666). "I met with military leaders constantly and routinely deferred to those on the battlefield. … Indeed, I thought that a more accurate criticism would have been that I too often deferred" (p. 705).

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I know a dozen generals who will gasp, or laugh out loud, when they read those passages.

Rumsfeld's true attitude toward dissent came to light with his treatment of Gen. Eric Shinseki, the Army chief of staff. In February 2003, just before the war began, Shinseki was asked at a Senate hearing how many troops would be needed to maintain stability after Saddam Hussein was overthrown. After hemming and hawing a few times, he replied, "several hundred thousand." This was (though he didn't put it this way) twice as many troops as Rumsfeld was deploying.

The next day, Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz brusquely attacked Shinseki's claim, calling it "way out of line." Shortly after, Rumsfeld announced the name of Shinseki's successor, even though the general's term wasn't up for nearly a year—thus ensuring his lame-duck status. Several officers told me at the time that the Shinseki treatment sent a clear signal to the entire officer corps: This is what happens if you run up against Don Rumsfeld.

Rumsfeld denies all of this, noting that Shinseki was allowed to serve out his term (an irrelevancy under the circumstances) and adding, "The Shinseki myth did harm to civil-military relations" (p. 456)—not allowing, for even a clause of a sentence, that his own behavior might deserve a smidgen of the blame.

The book devotes some space to the erroneous intelligence reports on Saddam's weapons of mass destruction and alleged connections with al-Qaida. Rumsfeld puts all the blame on the CIA. Neither he nor any other Bush official lied, he says; they were simply wrong. However, he does concede that, during the early days of the occupation, when a reporter asked why the WMD hadn't been found, he replied, "We know where they are, they're in the area around Tikrit and Baghdad." He now claims he wasn't lying; he just misspoke. He should have made clear that he was referring to "suspect sites," not the WMD themselves (p. 435).

This explanation might have been slightly plausible—except  that Rumsfeld doesn't even mention the Office of Special Plans, the unit that he set up inside the Pentagon that riffled through raw intel data and cherry-picked the bits that seemed to suggest an Iraqi connection with Osama Bin Laden. (The OSP did this after the CIA's analysts concluded that no such connection existed.) A February 2007 report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office concluded that this special unit, run by Assistant Secretary of Defense Douglas Feith (a member of Rumsfeld's inner circle), was improper for two reasons. First, the law forbids policymakers from doing intelligence analysis. Second, the unit  "was producing intelligence products" without "clearly conveying to senior decision-makers" that their conclusions were at "variance with the consensus of the intelligence community."

Rumsfeld also waves away the "myth" that he or his aides were planning to put the exile Ahmad Chalabi in charge of Iraq after the war. He writes, plainly: "[N]o one in the Department of Defense urged that Chalabi be 'anointed' as the ruler of post-Saddam Iraq" (p. 489). Maybe nobody used the word anointed. But it is a matter of record that Rumsfeld's deputy, Paul Wolfowitz, supplied the cargo-transport plane that flew Chalabi and 100 or so of his militiamen (who called themselves the "Free Iraqi Fighters") back to Iraq shortly after the invasion. Several former U.S. officials say that, before the war, Wolfowitz was actively lobbying the White House to back Chalabi's bid for power. (Bush opposed the idea of supporting anyone in particular.)

The book also finesses another key point that almost certainly, if indirectly, involved Chalabi—the orders, issued by L. Paul "Jerry" Bremer, head of the Coalition Provisional Authority, to disband the Iraqi army and to block all members of Saddam's Baathist Party from holding government jobs in the new Iraq. These two orders doomed all prospects of postwar order and at least accelerated the coming insurgency. The disbanding of the Iraqi army turned tens of thousands of armed young men into the disgruntled unemployed. The banning of Baathists from public jobs did the same—and removed experienced bureaucrats (most of whom had been obligated to join the party) from the machinery of government.

Rumsfeld downplays the orders' significance, noting that Saddam's army deserted as the U.S. troops invaded and thus essentially "disbanded itself" (p. 517). At the same time, however, he acknowledges that, "in hindsight," the orders' "importance is unmistakable" (p. 515). He extricates himself from this contradiction by claiming that the orders were entirely Bremer's doing, though he also puts some blame on the NSC, which "should have deliberated the decision more fully" (pages 518-19).

This is maddening in three ways. First, as George Packer thoroughly demonstrates in The Assassins' Gate, U.S. officers in Iraq had been working with Iraqi officers to call up their troops. A plan was funded and in motion—until Bremer pulled the plug. Second, Bremer issued the orders in May 2003, just days after arriving in Baghdad. He could not have had time to write them himself. In his own memoir, Bremer claims that Doug Feith handed him the orders, saying they were to be his top priority, as Iraqis had to be shown that a new day was dawning.