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 still not known, after all these years, who wrote those two orders. (I suspect it came out of Cheney's office, at the urging of Chalabi, who wanted to supplant the army with his own militia and who, as Rumsfeld acknowledges, turned de-Baathification into a splurge of "score-settling" [p. 515].) But it is unimaginable that Feith would have handed Bremer any orders without at least Rumsfeld's consent. Many of Rumsfeld's criticisms of Bremer's imperiousness and ignorance are on the money. But he doesn't mention, much less refute, the claim about getting his marching orders from Feith.

Finally, the NSC did take up the issue of what to do with the Iraqi army and the Baathists. On March 10, a week before the invasion, a principals meeting—attended by Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Rice, Tenet, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and all of their top aides—decided that, after the war, a truth and reconciliation commission would be set up, similar to those in post-apartheid South Africa and post-Communist Eastern Europe, to ferret out the undesirable Baathists from those who could work for a new government. Staff analysts predicted that only about 5 percent of the party would have to be removed. On March 12, at another principals meeting, it was decided to disband the Republican Guard—Saddam's elite corps and bodyguards—but to call the regular army's soldiers back to duty and to reconstitute their units after a proper vetting.

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Both of these decisions were unanimous. In other words, Bremer's first two orders constituted acts of massive insubordination. Most of the NSC officials, including Bush, first read about the two orders in a newspaper.

Rumsfeld doesn't mention either of these meetings in his 815-page memoir.

Perhaps the most duplicitous passages in the book are those where Rumsfeld criticizes the NSC's decision-making process. "Often meetings were not well-organized" (p. 327). "Postwar planning for Iraq lacked effective interagency coordination, clear lines of responsibility, and the deadlines and accountability associated with a rigorous process" (p. 487). "I thought it would have been terrific if Rice and her [NSC] staff had the interest and skill to manage all U.S. efforts in Iraq and improve the situation. But they did not" (p.  525).

Certainly Rumsfeld is right that Rice was terrible at managing the NSC. (I once wrote a column calling her the worst national security adviser ever.) But what made her terrible was that she failed to rein in the machinations of Rumsfeld and Cheney.

Several officials have told me that, when the NSC was about to deal with an issue that Rumsfeld would rather avoid, he'd send to the meeting a deputy who would say that he wasn't authorized to make a decision. (Cheney would handle defeats by going to the Oval Office afterward and persuading Bush to reverse the NSC's decision.) On a number of occasions, the NSC would make a decision—sometimes with Bush present—and Rumsfeld would simply refuse to carry it out. This was particularly true of decisions involving the security and reconstruction of post-Saddam Iraq.

Twice, Rice went so far as to tell Bush that Rumsfeld wasn't doing what the NSC—what the president himself—had ordered him to do. Bush never intervened. He suggested that Rice call a meeting with Andy Card, the White House chief of staff, and have him settle the dispute. The NSC was famously dysfunctional, and Bush deserves most of the blame for declining to exert discipline. Rice was also at fault for failing to knock heads. But Rumsfeld was the joker who sowed the chaos to begin with. (It is significant that the NSC process became much more disciplined after Robert Gates became defense secretary in 2007.)

For this reason, the most jaw-dropping sentence in the entire book may be the one that appears in the middle of Page 326: "After a president has made a decision, a senior official has the responsibility to implement it faithfully." It was a responsibility that Rumsfeld routinely shirked, and one wonders if he wrote that sentence in mirth or delusion.

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